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MLB and National TV: A Troubled Relationship

Dave Randall

Posted on September 23, 2017 17:36

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The one-time National Pastime struggles for viewers in Prime Time. Why?

To true baseball fans, we are entering the next most exciting time of the year: October. The other is late February, when players report to training camp. True baseball fans are frothing with excitement. Nationally, however, casual fans have shown declining interest in play-off and World Series games. As the garrulous legend Casey Stengel would have said, "Who'da thunk it?"

That doesn't make sense to those of us who love the game, but the suits who read the data have told us the expanse of the diamond and the lack of continuous action makes the game unappealing on the home screen. Football, however, with it's measured gridiron and centralized action, is much more TV friendly. 

Right. Well, we know multi-million dollar contracts between the NFL and CBS in 1962, and the old AFL and NBC in 1964, funneled a ton of money into the sport, and in 1970, the ABC Monday Night package changed weeknight viewing habits forever. Football won the national TV battle before war was declared.

In a series of books about TV's relationship with the grand old game, author Curt Smith has continually pointed out that outside of the World Series and All-Star game, and regional telecasts, Major League baseball has continually shot itself in the foot. Between 1953 and 1964, weekly national telecasts of baseball games were blacked out in major league cities. By the time ABC televised a truly coast to coast schedule in 1965, ratings were terrible and the series was routinely beaten by competing telecasts of local games. NBC took over the package the following year, with the same dedication it had given its exclusive, innovative World Series coverage from 1947 on. Director Harry Coyle created the center field shot, giving viewers a capsule look at the pitcher, catcher and batter. The shot was so good, baseball owners feared it would be an impediment to ticket sales. 

That kind of thinking doomed the game's national TV growth. When ABC bought back into MLB with a Monday Night series in 1976, visionary producer Roone Arledge insisted on making baseball more accessible to non-fans. As a result, Monday Night games on ABC in the 70's were cluttered with shots of players' wives in the stands, and a camera that zoomed in and followed the flight of home runs. Even non-fans didn't want to watch a ball spin into the night. It's the crowd and the batter's reaction to the flight of that ball that's exciting. 

Decades later, Fox made the same kind of error, showcasing stars of its TV-series between pitches. Calista Flockhart (Alley McBeal) barely chewing a hot dog at Yankee Stadium? Fox showed us that, along with taut, tight close ups of batter and pitcher that gave you vertigo.

This is not an easy situation to fix. Where the NFL is a national power, MLB's strength lay in its individual teams. It will take exciting circumstances and perhaps earlier start times to begin the process.

Dave Randall

Posted on September 23, 2017 17:36

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Source: ESPN
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