Baseball’s Back on TV, But Will Fans Tune In or Turn Off?
Baseball returns to the tube for real on Tuesday night, and television types must wonder: Will fans follow?
That, after all, is the bottom line in TV land, where each click of the turnstile is a ratings point, and each ``red hot″ means a happy advertiser.
``Obviously, people are upset about the strike, but one of the beauties of baseball is that it’s ultimately just for fun,″ said Jon Miller, who will make the call as the Dodgers and Marlins start the season in Miami exclusively on ESPN.
``It’s not like things that happen in Congress. It’s not like we need to boycott lettuce because the growers are unfair. Now, baseball is back, and people will find it enjoyable. It’s for fun.″
ESPN carries the load in terms of national broadcasts for the first half of the season, offering weekly Sunday night games and Wednesday doubleheaders. Then, at the All-Star break on July 11, The Baseball Network joins in.
ABC and NBC, baseball’s two partners in The Baseball Network, will hold meetings in mid-May to decide how to divvy up the All-Star game, playoffs and World Series. They take turns in the regular-season, ABC doing six prime-time broadcasts after the All-Star game, then NBC doing the next six.
``From a personal standpoint, I’m very glad the season’s finally going to get under way,″ said Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, who works for both ESPN and The Baseball Network. ``I was very pessimistic about what was going to happen. But it’s finally here, and I’m very excited.″
Miller and Morgan will work the Tuesday night opener, marking the first national TV broadcast of a major league game since ESPN showed Kansas City at California as the second game of its Wednesday doubleheader on Aug. 10, 1994. Joel Meyers and Buck Martinez were the lucky announcers that night.
ESPN will do about 75 games this season, including a tripleheader on Wednesday, a Memorial Day doubleheader, and three games each on the Fourth of July and Labor Day.
``One of the great things about baseball is, it is its own therapy, just being able to get up in the morning and read the box scores,″ said Miller, who also is the voice of the Baltimore Orioles. ``It’s your entitlement as an American _ to read the box scores, the probable pitchers, the top 10 leaders. What a rotten way it is to start the day when you don’t have those things.″
Baseball might have kept Miller off the psychiatrist’s couch, but it has driven others to the brink. Former New York Yankees shortstop Tony Kubek, for example, quit in disgust as a Yankees announcer for Madison Square Garden Network last year.
``I wasn’t really happy with what was going on in the game,″ Kubek said, ``and I don’t mean specifically just the labor dispute. Baseball is expanding, and the quality seems to be going down. The playoff system instituted with wild cards had a team below .500 getting into the postseason.
``All that kind of stuff was wearing thin.″
And it’s all for sake of the Almighty Dollar, Kubek said.
``When you put money first, forget quality, forget integrity, your conscience is dulled,″ Kubek said. ``Baseball has got a lot of problems to work out, and I don’t have to think about them anymore unless I want to.″
The Baseball Network has its problems, too, but they’re not nearly as bad as they would have been if owners had gone through with replacement baseball.
Under the pioneering format of TBN, ABC, NBC and the major leagues share costs and profits with no rights fees from the networks involved. There were no profits to share last season, and owners have the right to dissolve the network if it doesn’t meet expectations this year.
``Last year, we had to surmount a certain amount of skepticism,″ Baseball Network CEO Ken Schanzer said. ``That’s not an issue this year. The market is better this year, but in addition, we were out selling verbiage and making a lot of promises last year.
``This year, I think people know that we were serious in what we’re prepared to deliver, and people who bought with us had a good experience for the limited time we were on air.″
The major criticism of The Baseball Network, from an artistic standpoint, has been its plan to regionalize coverage of the playoffs, meaning nobody gets to see all the playoff games.
``My suggestion is that if they add an extra round of playoffs for the good of the game, then they have to televise it,″ Miller said. ``Turn it into a weeklong baseball festival, the way ESPN turned the NCAA tournament into some big thing. Have games starting at 2, at 5 and at 8, all through the day, so you can see all the games.
``Have games on all day every day for a week. Now, that would be spectacular,″ Miller said.
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