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April 24, 2000

Prospectus Q&A: Mark Wolfson

The As Television Producer

by Steven Rubio

Mark Wolfson has been a television producer and director since 1969, and has worked in sports television since 1976, when he set up his own production company in Los Angeles. In the ensuing 24 years, he's worked on just about every sport, even the World Wrist Wrestling Championship from the Queen Mary.

Mark produced and directed games for the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1977 to 1992, and says working with Vin Scully in those years gave him his appreciation for baseball and its role on television. He also did games for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Anaheim Angels, the USA Network and The Baseball Network.

Mark has been doing the commercial broadcasts for the Oakland A's since 1993, and has found himself much in the news since the appearance of OPS in on-screen graphics in the A's opening telecast for 2000.

Baseball Prospectus: You got a lot of attention after the broadcast of the Oakland A's opening game, when the hitters' on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS were featured prominently. What led to the decision to use these particular statistics?

Mark Wolfson: The business of broadcasting is every bit as competitive as the business of baseball. I am always looking for ways to enhance our telecasts. Also, it just made sense to add these graphics given the A's organizational philosophy. Why shouldn't the fans be made aware of the same numbers used to build the organization?

That said, I was leery about adding complexity to the game's understanding for the casual fan, the one who is the largest part of our audience. So far, as you point out, the response has been very positive.

BP: What was the reaction of the on-air personnel, Greg Papa and Ray Fosse?

MW: Both were very positive. Greg is always interested in finding ways to tell the stories. I wish I had more time on the broadcast to explain not only how the stats are calculated, but why they are so valuable, as well as place them in historical context. The Internet is the perfect place for that: we have plans for the KICU Web site where fans will be able to get up to speed on not only the value of OPS, but on how a slider is thrown, and other "inside" information that time doesn't permit us to deal with on the game broadcasts.

BP: Since that opening night, I've watched telecasts from various places, local and national, without seeing anything similar to what turned up on yours opening night. Have you discussed the decision to use sabermetric stats with producers for other teams?

MW: As I said, ours is a very competitive business. As a result, I don't discuss my broadcast plans with any of my fellow producers, other than to talk about the physical aspects of doing games. Those conditions change year to year. If it turns out that we continue to get positive publicity about the use of OPS on our telecasts and that enough fans ask for them, then you can be sure you will ultimately see them on other telecasts.

BP: Have you cut back on the stathead material since the opener?

MW: We haven't used the OPS numbers as much in the last couple of telecasts. The reason is two-fold. There just weren't enough games played to make them really relevant and the A's disappointing start had them last in the league in OBP.

Keep in mind, we walk a fine line being the local broadcaster; our games are meant to help put fannies in the seats. Though we want to be credible, it does us no good to hammer the team and perhaps drive viewers away. We started using the numbers again in Cleveland and we expect to use them regularly in future telecasts. We may go lightly on the A's numbers until they improve a bit. I don't want to make it seem that the numbers are so one-sided that the game we're doing isn't worth watching. Tradition dictates I give the usual: batting average, home runs and RBI. We all know how much more telling OPS is, so I'm likely to be more judicious in their use for the A's until things improve.

BP: I've always enjoyed telecasts you've directed, largely because your work goes unnoticed, which is not meant as a case of damning with faint praise. It's a rare moment during one of your games when I see something on my screen and wonder why it's there. Are there any fundamental guiding principles you work with? How have these changed over the years?

MW: First, thanks for the compliments. My primary goal is to try to make our shows entertaining and informative. And I try to never assume that the audience knows as much as we do. All too often, baseball broadcasters do the games for themselves and their contemporaries. Why else would you let your announcers talk about a "Vulcan changeup" and not explain it? The fact is that nine out of 10 baseball fans can't tell you the difference between a curveball and a slider. Our job is made more difficult by the dual task of being interesting to both the casual fans and the ones who will read this interview.

I also like to have fun. I like broadcasts with a sense of humor. We're not doing brain surgery. It's baseball--a game, and a kid's game at that. The announcers should remember to never take things too seriously.

A case in point is Greg Papa's wonderful call of the Matt Stairs walk-off piece at the Coliseum last year. The ball went over the left-field wall and he yelled "Yahoo," a play on the signage where the ball went out. Or when he and Ray played catch during one of our show openings in Phoenix last year. Or at our game against Cleveland earlier this season. There was one fan down the first-base line who was constantly standing up and talking to the players and umpires, and because he was near a field microphone, we could hear him. As a result, we kept going back to him. The funniest moment of the night was when--after a questionable call by the umpire--he yelled, "Hey, we're trying to win a ballgame here." It was hysterical.

BP: Do you consciously do things differently for a Northern California audience watching an A's game than you did for a Southern California audience watching a Dodger game?

MW: My philosophy was no different in Los Angeles. There I was privileged to work with, in my opinion, the greatest baseball announcer who has ever lived, Vin Scully. With all due respect to the great Bill King, and the other terrific A's announcers, all of whom I think the world of, no one has ever understood the difference between baseball play-by-play on television and radio and how to do both. For someone of his stature, Scully's ego never got in the way of doing the best broadcasts possible in either medium.

Here's an example. I remember a critical game we did in Chicago in which the Dodgers were leading by a run in the ninth and the Dodgers' closer was coming off a couple of tough outings. The situation was two out with the tying run at third base. The crowd was on its feet and Vin said to me in my headset, "Mark, I'm not going to talk during this at-bat. Just use the count graphic before every pitch." The Dodgers' pitcher ran the count full but wound up striking out the last hitter to end the game. Vin kept quiet for at least another minute while I shot the on-field celebration. Too many young announcers would look to make their mark by intruding in that moment. Though unquestionably a traditionalist, I know that Vin would embrace the OPS stats.

BP: The Giants' television crews have openly stated they will be featuring the new ballpark extensively. Given the Giants' poor start, this might be a good idea, but in general, what kind of balance between the play on the field and the ambiance of the ballpark do you think works best in a baseball telecast?

MW: I would probably do the same thing in their place. Here you have what is arguably the best stadium in all of baseball. And since tickets are somewhat hard to come by, television ratings will be higher as people tune in to see the new park and its effects on the game. It's a kind of voyage of discovery. It will certainly help the Giants ratings for at least the 2000 season.

That said, there are some problems with the camera sightlines at Pac Bell Park which their producer and director are working hard to get corrected.

As for the A's, it depends on where we are. We just did a game in Fenway. How can you not feature the Green Monster and how it affects the game? On the other hand, the Metrodome isn't worth more than a mention of the dimensions.

BP: How much input does the team have into this kind of directorial decisionmaking?

MW: Some teams are very active in the production's tone and feel, some are not. The A's have never tried to influence my directorial decisions. The Dodgers were much more involved.

For a number of years I was embroiled in a disagreement with Dodgers management about shooting players in the dugout. Owner Peter O'Malley felt that it was like invading someone's privacy. I insisted that if the fans could see it in the ballpark, I should be able to show it on television. How would it look if Vin was talking about one of the players on the bench and I didn't shoot him? What the team was really concerned about was not showing Tommy Lasorda cursing in the dugout, which as we all know was an all-too-frequent occurrence. I learned that I could shoot Tommy in the dugout when things were going well for the team, but when they weren't, it was in my best interest to stay out of there.

BP: Are your hands free to do what you think is best, or is there always someone asking for more pictures of kids eating Cracker Jack?

MW: Actually that's me asking for those shots, especially on the road. To a certain extent, the fans in the ballpark typify the kind of place it is. Plus, no shot better sells tickets than seeing a father catch a foul ball and hand it to his young son or daughter. The key is to not take those "color" shots when the game is on the line.

BP: I'm interested in the complex mixture of ratings and advertising revenue and even broadcast rights that affects what fans see on their screen. The switch from KRON to KICU, for instance, would seem to make a difference on the telecasts, but as a fan I can't really tell the difference.

MW: Which was intended. Given that I am the Executive Producer/Director of both broadcasts, the look of the games could only be affected by the production budget. How many cameras? Videotape/slo-mo machines? Graphics? Announcers?

The big difference between the A's on KRON and the A's on KICU are the ratings. KRON is a powerful VHF television station on every cable system in the Bay Area. KICU is a regional UHF station that doesn't have the coverage that KRON has. This means that, all things being equal, the audience for A's games will probably be smaller on KICU. That said, Jim Evers, the former GM of KICU, and the new owners of the station, Cox Broadcasting (also owners of KTVU) have given me the tools I need to do the kind of broadcasts that both the station and the fans can be proud of. In fact, the equipment complement is exactly the same for KICU as it was for KRON.

BP: What do you make of the Expos' only being offered $200,000 Canadian for their English language broadcast rights? The radio stations claim any larger offer would cause them to lose money, but that sounds fishy.

MW: Not to me. Montreal is a very small market with a bad stadium and a French-speaking population that has never really embraced baseball. Oh sure, they've had occasional big crowds, but there's just no passion for the game there. I actually think things were better there when they were a Dodgers' minor-league town.

Here in the Bay Area, though the Giants have always been a profitable venture for KTVU, the team's need for more revenue because of the tremendous debt service on the new stadium is the impetus for their asking KTVU for a substantial increase in TV rights fees. Add in that the cost of doing the games increases every year, and that KTVU will have competition for the rights from the new owners of KRON, Young Broadcasting. It may turn out that the profit potential of the Giants broadcasts may vastly decrease under a new deal for either KTVU or KRON.

BP: Returning to where we started, what do see as the role of sabermetrics in baseball broadcasts in the near and not-so-near future?

MW: If they are packaged in a way to enhance the viewer's enjoyment of the games and the telecasts, they will become an important part of ours and many other rightsholders' broadcasts. It will take time. Remember that the Big Three--Avg., HR and RBI--have been the mainstay of the fans' understanding of the game for 100 years. If we show the fan a better way to evaluate talent that is easy to understand, they will embrace the sabermetric numbers.

BP: Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions.

MW: My pleasure. I put a lot of stock in what our audience feels about our broadcasts. If anyone wants to offer comments or suggestions on our telecasts, they are encouraged to contact me at mwolfson@TVdir.com.

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