Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Can Local TV Sports Be Saved?

One reason I got out of TV sports reporting full-time was the attitude most stations had toward their sports departments: They were a drain of resources rather than an asset that won viewers.

Did I say "had?" They still do. WPLG in Miami will have one sportscaster left after it lets its weekend guy's contract expire July 1. If you click the link, scroll down past the stuff about Charles Barkley's DUI to read the story.

And XETV in San Diego axed its entire sports department. The recent loss of its Fox affiliation played a role, according to the station's GM.

Richard Doutre Jones also cited a loss of sports viewers to ESPN.

The problem isn't just ESPN, although part of the problem is guys at local stations whose only aim is to perfect their ESPN demo reel.

It's that the audience is so fragmented now that stations haven't figured out what's left for them and how to attract an audience for it.

Once upon a time even with ESPN around, a San Diego TV station could cover the Chargers or the Padres in a detail that ESPN could not match.


Forget that ESPN is now four networks (five if you count its Spanish channel). The NFL, NBA and now Major League Baseball all operate their own networks. There's the Golf Channel. CSTV is College Sports TV. Speed is an all-racing network.

Then there's the web. if I'm pro football fan, gives me play-by-play updates of every game in real time. Newspaper blogs and sites like aggregate news around the league. Scores, highlights and league news go right to my phone.

And what are local stations doing?

They're teasing "highlights" when anyone who gives half a flying flip (also known as falling on one's face) has already seen the highlights, already heard or read the news and knew the final score as soon as the game ended.

In other words, they're giving me the same thing I've already gotten except later and, usually, not as well. I live in a top-15 market and there's not a sportscast on any of the four stations here that can keep my attention for its duration. AND I LIKE SPORTS!

What can a station do?

Covering high school and recreational sports won't work if you're going to give them the same treatment you're giving to a pro or major college team. Just because someone plays in an adult soccer league doesn't mean he wants to watch highlights of it, unless it's his game.

A high school football game may draw 7,000 people painted in school colors. What are you doing for the hundreds of thousands of other people who might be watching?

Try this: Tell me a story. Give me insight not just into a game but into the people who play them. Show me someone I'd admire for his or her athletic achievement, regardless of what level it is. Sometimes it's a pro football player; sometimes it's a Special Olympian.

At their heart, sports are about succeeding where most people fail -- those rare days when someone's grasp exceeds what his reach should be.

Sports are more than scores. They have drama, humor, triumph and tragedy. Good sports stories expose the human elements behind the action. That's something you rarely get from the talking-head-ex-jock-shoutfests on ESPN.

That would make me watch.

The problem with this is that such thoughtful content takes time to produce. It takes professional storytellers. You can't give me insight into something if you don't have any.

These things cost money. Which stations don't have in abundance any more. So they hire the plentifully available, and therefore cheap, ESPN highlight-reading wannabes and pretend to wonder why the audience tunes out when the sports segment comes on.

What would I do?

If I ran a station -- and don't worry, there's no danger of that -- I would still do a daily sports segment at a specified time. People who will watch for sports news won't choose you if they don't know when they can find it.

But some days the segment would run 1 minute; other days it would go five. Similarly, some days the sports department would have one person, other days more.

My sports reporters would report news when needed. That might be one day one week and three the next, depending on what was going on.

Sports would be part of the daily editorial meetings rather than a semi-autonomous entity within the newsroom. No more wondering what "they" are thinking. Decisions on what to cover are made as part of the overall daily plan.

Would it work? I don't know.

How's the current model working?

No comments: