Thursday, October 19, 2000

Baseball on TV

Long games leave fans long gone

        NEW YORK — Television is trying to kill baseball. If baseball isn't careful, television may succeed.

        The postseason games are drowning in commercials. They are being poisoned by prime time. They are being stretched to the breaking point of public interest and beyond the bedtimes of the children baseball needs to cultivate.

        It is a shame and a scandal and the source of a recurring rant in this space. Baseball has sold its soul, distorted its product and narrowed its audience in pursuit of the fast money that cedes quality control to the networks. Worse, it is officially oblivious to the problem.

        “I must say we don't hear a lot of complaining from fans,” commissioner Bud Selig told USA Today. “This, to them, isn't a priority in a lot of surveys and studies.”

        Really? If spectators have failed to register their dismay that the seventh-inning stretch now follows the 11 o'clock news, it may be that they are asleep for the singing of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Not everyone lives in the Eastern time zone, but nearly half the major-league teams and 15 of the last 16 World Series participants are based there. There's something fundamentally wrong when a kid in California has a better chance of watching the Subway Series than a boy in the Bronx.

        The American League Championship Series ended Wednesday morning at 12:17. The New York Yankees beat the Seattle Mariners 9-7, and the home team didn't have to hit in the ninth inning. The game lasted 4:13, the second straight nine-inning ALCS game to exceed the four-hour mark.

        There are a variety of culprits for the dawdling pace: pitchers who are afraid or unable to throw strikes; hitters who adjust their helmet, their batting gloves, their elbow pad and their stock portfolio before every pitch; umpires who fail to keep the game moving; managers who call meetings to make points that should have been clear in the clubhouse.

        Yet all of these causes are but a blip compared to the influence of television. To cover their enormous rights fees, the networks are granted two minutes and 25 seconds between each half-inning for advertising — 20 seconds more than the regular-season allotment, more than 40 minutes a game.

        They scheduled first pitches at 8:14p.m. or 8:18p.m. — fully an hour later than the standard regular-season starting time. This tends to exacerbate bad weather and compromises the quality of play.

        Television ratings reflect a decline in interest. The first five LCS games registered 7.5 in the Neilsen ratings, a 25 percent decline from last year. The division series showed a 28 percent decline. Some of this is attributable to the proliferation of cable and satellite alternatives. Some of it, however, is sheer stupidity.

        Baseball cannot presume to hold the interest of at-risk viewers for four hours. It must find the means to make the games more manageable and more accessible to younger viewers. Weekend World Series games should never start later than 7p.m., if only to afford children the chance to glimpse some of the games.

        The children who live in my house are in bed, at least in theory, before 9p.m. The one who loves baseball, whose room is decorated in Derek Jeter, did not get to see his hero throw out Edgar Martinez for the final out Wednesday morning.

        If Selig can't see this, he's looking at the wrong surveys.



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