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May 16, 2003

6-4-3

Always Hangin' 'Round

by Gary Huckabay

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On Wednesday evening, approximately 40 people gathered at Rocco's Pizzeria in Walnut Creek for a BP Pizza Feed. Unlike most of the NorCal Pizza Feeds, the evening didn't consist primarily of me, Wolverton, Wilkins, and Cleary answering a bunch of questions and listening to a rather malicious version of Les Nessman's Death Watch, usually focused on Steve Phillips. We were fortunate enough to be joined by Mark Wolfson, the Director of the Oakland A's Broadcasts on KICU 36 in the Bay Area. Mark knows more about broadcasting and that side of baseball than anyone really should, and has a facility and feel for the business that most people wish they had about any business. If you missed it, you missed an informative and entertaining evening, and a gathering of a bunch of very nice, very dedicated and jovial baseball fans. I hope you can make the next one. (Houston and Fresno--we haven't forgotten about you.)

One of the topics that always comes up when conversation turns to baseball broadcasting is the length of games. There's a common perception among people on the broadcasting side that games are too long. You're probably familiar with the line of thinking: kids today are used to more stimulation, instant gratification, and the long "slow spells" in baseball make it difficult to sell the game to people, particularly young kids. The powers that be in MLB's front office have responded to this perceived challenge by forming a task force with the goal of speeding up games. Personally, I like a lot of the simple, quick hits that have been implemented. It makes sense to have a batboy ready with an identical bat in case one breaks. There's a lot of little things along those lines that make sense for MLB and the fans, and it's good to see those steps being taken.

But on some level, there's a real limit to what can be done in that arena. I don't accept the supposition that games are too long, but let's assume for a moment that the ADD-afflicted gang at FOX are in fact, correct, and baseball's a difficult product to sell on TV, in part because of its length, and in part because of its pace.

What could be done to improve the product that is televised baseball?

It's a good question, and one reason why Mark Wolfson's so generous with his time when it comes to Pizza Feeds--he's able to talk, in some depth, with a small segment of the target audience. Here are some of the things that people brought up last evening, both on the positive and negative side.

  • High Definition Television. If you haven't seen an HDTV broadcast of baseball, don't. Avoid it at all costs. Once you see an HDTV broadcast of a game, going back to regular NTSC broadcasts absolutely and completely sucks. You'll wonder how you ever even got through the day with regular television, and you'll start counting the minutes until you can see that Detroit/Tampa Bay tilt game in HiDef. As long as FOX or ESPN doesn't completely blow it by wasting half the screen with crawlers, meaningless stats, or pointless and annoying animations, it's going to be great.

  • Concentrated games. MLB.TV is already doing this, and for some people, this is something of a magic bullet. The reduction of dead time between pitches, elimination of non-critical pitches and activities, and presentation of a superset of highlights allows people to watch more games, and perhaps see some games and players they wouldn't otherwise get a chance to observe. For some people, it's an abomination that's akin to having MTV edit a Hitchcock film.

  • More sound. Wolfson talked about audio as a potential area of expansive growth for broadcasts; miking up coaches, players, and different spots on the field can provide added texture and nuance to broadcasts without a major change in the structure of the way games are currently covered. Of course, you do run the risk of speeding up your kids' vocabulary learning curve, particularly if there's a mike near Tommy Lasorda, or Frank Robinson when his players are aggressively demonstrating their ignorance of the game's rules.

  • More dynamic camera angles. As it is, the center field shot is the dominant shot in baseball coverage, and that's a good thing. But when the ball's in play, the coverage is necessarily discrete, moving from one object to the next. A fixed set of cameras that would take a more distant shot, perhaps showing half the field, including either 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, and possibly baserunners, might take some getting used to, but might do a better job of conveying the action and connected nature of the game.

  • Fewer cuts. The advantage of making a lot of cuts to different cameras is that you get to see the ballplayer(s) fill more of the screen, instead of a bunch of little people moving around in a lot of space. It might be interesting, on occasion, to stick with one camera shot for an entire play, or at least have it available for a replay, to provide some sort of continuity and a different perspective on a given play. You may not necessarily, in all cases, want to actually stick with the ball, but instead build the suspense by showing the preparation for the remainder of the play.

These are ideas strictly from the technical side, and don't include the obvious moves to remove dead time, such as not letting batters step out of the box, etc. MLB could be enforcing those things if they want to, and making changes like allowing only four warmup pitches, etc, but they're doing things incrementally, which is certainly understandable. And from the outside, we need to remember that baseball on TV is really the transformation of one product--entertainment you pay to see--into another product which is really a different animal: an ad sales vehicle.

It's a fine line that all content/ad sales organizations have to walk. They have to produce a sufficiently entertaining experience to be compelling, and insert enough advertising to be financially viable. The problem, of course, is that the experience of the viewer, reader, or listener, is compromised by the placement of advertising. Given MLB's dependence on advertising revenue, derived from local and national television, local radio, and out-of-home advertising and promotional dollars (those ads you see at the ballpark), it's really just a question of time before ad inventory is increased even more by the introduction of new media--be it bars or bands on an HDTV screen, corporate naming rights for clubs, or patches on uniforms. I'm not decrying this trend; I understand and appreciate the clubs' need and right to make money from their enterprise. But eventually, someone's going to take one of those steps down a slippery slope, and the rest of the clubs will soon follow. It's more true for presentation and packaging for television than it is for baseball operations, so you can bet the first armpatch pitching Tide will soon be followed by Coke, Pepsi, Budweiser, Miller, etc.

With no offense to Rafael Palmeiro, I hope he's retired before that inevitable trend begins. Brrrr.

Gary Huckabay is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Gary's other articles. You can contact Gary by clicking here

Related Content:  Broadcasting,  Replay In Baseball

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