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ESPN’s MLB coverage has undergone its most extensive set of on-air changes in the network’s 21-year history of covering the league.
ESPN executives have settled on a series of talent and technical changes to its telecasts that has its roots in a restructuring of its production department last September.
ESPN is testing a live K Zone application.
One of the first — and most public changes — came in November, when ESPN decided against renewing the contracts of longtime “Sunday Night Baseball” broadcasting duo Jon Miller and Joe Morgan.
“If you believe in reinventing organization and oversight, it’s incumbent upon you to reinvent the faces that are delivering it,” said Norby Williamson, ESPN’s executive vice president of production. “That created a domino effect on other nights.”
ESPN chose Dan Shulman, Orel Hershiser and Bobby Valentine to handle “Sunday Night Baseball.” Sean McDonough, Rick Sutcliffe and Aaron Boone will be in the booth Monday nights while Dave O’Brien and Nomar Garciaparra will handle Wednesday’s games.
“Everyone likes to focus on the talent changes,” Williamson said. “To me, that’s a small part of it.”
Taking a page from its popular “College GameDay” program, ESPN is putting its “Baseball Tonight” studio at the “Sunday Night Baseball” location.
“We’re not going to have a bunch of deck chairs just outside the foul line,” Drake said. “We are putting our announcers with a major presence adjacent to these ballparks, where fans will be flowing past them. It’s going to feel big. It’s going to feel urgent. It’s going to feel fun.”
On the technology front, ESPN is looking to bring viewers inside the action. In a new feature, it will time — to the hundredth of a second — how long it takes for a ball to leave the pitcher’s hand and hit the catcher’s mitt, or how long it takes a runner to go from first base to second base.
“We will detail down to the hundredths of a second why somebody had a good break or why somebody made a good throw,” Drake said. ESPN developed the technology in-house and is calling it “Diamond Track.”
ESPN also is testing a “K Zone Live” application in spring training. ESPN executives have not decided whether the application, which shows where a pitch goes over the plate, will be rolled out for the regular season.
Sports programming will return to FX for the first time in five years later this year, as the network has committed to carry 14 college football games.
The games, which primarily will come from Fox Sports Net’s TV rights deals with the Big 12 and Pac-10 conferences, demonstrate that Fox is serious about adding more sports to the cable channel.
Fox executives previously have expressed interest in developing a broadcast model for FX featuring a mix of sports and entertainment. FX stripped sports from its schedule five years ago, after televising MLB games and NASCAR races. Recently Fox executives have been trying to figure out how to get them back on.
Earlier this year Fox Sports Chairman David Hill said, “There’s been very envious eyes cast at TNT from FX.” Fox executives believe live sports is a reason why TNT commands higher subscriber fees — more than $1 per subscriber per month to FX’s rate in the mid-40 cents range — as well as higher ratings.
FX’s college football plans mark a first step.
“College football has been a ratings powerhouse,” Shanks said, adding that FX is a good destination for these games. With a distribution of more than 99 million homes, FX is strongest with the younger, male demographic that also likes sports, Shanks added.
“We think it’s good to put sports on channels that typically are not dedicated sports networks because of the greater reach of the audience,” he said. “FX has a history of carrying big-time sports.”
In addition to the MLB games and NASCAR races, FX also has carried Fox sports events that run too long for the network window. Five years ago, FX allowed its NASCAR contract to lapse and began concentrating on producing edgy original shows.
Over the next several years, FX figures to be at the table as professional and college TV rights come up. The NFL and MLB’s current media rights deals expire after the 2013 season; NASCAR’s come due in 2014. Plus, Olympic bids for 2014 and 2016 are expected to start later this year.
Under Fox’s new plan, FX will run college football games at least one Saturday a week — from Sept. 3 through Dec. 3. The games will not have a dedicated time slot. Fox executives say they have the option to run games in late afternoons, prime time or late-night windows. That flexibility is important, Fox says, because it allows the channel to avoid ESPN’s exclusive windows. FSN still will carry a game from each conference weekly on its RSNs.
Fox does not have a specific schedule yet. It expects to make its first three selections by June. As the season wears on, FX will select games and times no more than 12 days out.
Most selections will come from the Big 12 and Pac-12, which adopts its new branding after Utah and Colorado join the conference; occasional Conference USA games could be selected, too. Fox’s broadcast channel has the rights to the Big 12 and Pac-12 championship games this year. FX is a likely destination for Conference USA’s championship game — though that game could be moved to Fox.
Fox hasn’t settled on who will be in the broadcast booth or its Los Angeles-based studio yet. It plans to host a halftime show from the studio, but has not decided on whether to run a pregame or postgame show.
Shanks said the telecast will have its own dedicated college football staff. But he said the Fox Sports’ animated robot Cleatus will be on the FX telecast.
“It’s not a big-time package unless you have Cleatus the robot or Digger,” Shanks said with a laugh.
“This did exactly what we wanted, in that it helped the sports fan find truTV,” he said.
After a week when CBS and Turner were praised widely for showing every NCAA tournament game in its entirety, why would Levy, Turner’s president of sales, distribution and sports, want to hype his lowest-rated network?
But a survey we conducted last week with 125 sports business students at Penn’s Wharton School of Business shows why Levy’s focus on truTV makes sense.
After the first weekend of games, only 39 percent of the students could correctly identify where to find truTV on their multi-channel system.
But none of those students — literally zero — had any clue where the channel was just a week before the tournament.
Levy wanted sports fans to find the channel — and they did.
If they couldn’t, they agitated for it. Typical was grad student Amika Porwal, who wanted to see the Marquette-Syracuse game on Sunday night, but her small cable system near Philadelphia doesn’t carry truTV.
“It was really annoying to me that I wasn’t able to watch it,” she said. “I had to pull out my laptop for it.”
I don’t expect many of tournament viewers to return to truTV; the Wharton students mocked promos for shows like “Hardcore Pawn” and “Lizard Lick Towing.” But Levy can now show leagues that fans will find it as Turner pursues additional sports rights.
Other takeaways the Wharton students had from the first weekend of the CBS/Turner-produced tournament:
• Cable television has to be considered a big winner. Starting with the BCS on ESPN in January and running through this month’s NCAA tournament, cable networks are showing that they can handle big events.
Nearly all of the Wharton students said they preferred watching this year’s tournament across four networks compared to when CBS had the tournament on its own.
Asked to rate the TV watching experience this year on a scale of 1 to 10, the students’ grades averaged out to an 8.8.
CBS still showed a lot of strength. TV ratings for CBS’s games were the highest of the four networks. And the Wharton students’ experiences show why.
Grad student Josh Gartland said he settled on CBS games because they felt “familiar.”
“I was worried that I was going to miss something, so I was toggling more than I would have,” he said. “I would always default back to CBS because I would feel like that was the headquarters.”
Fellow student Avi Rosenblit agreed. “There’s something about CBS where even the music felt like home base to me.”
The majority, however, never want to go back.
As an Ohio State fan, Gigi Garmendia was happy that she could watch her team’s blowout victory over George Mason, without having the network cut away, as CBS would have done in past years.
“I more strongly prefer this year’s,” she said. “There’s no regional bias.”
• March Madness On Demand may be setting usage records (logging 26.7 million visits in the first week), but the experience left a lot of Wharton students wanting more.
Asked to grade their online experience, the students ranked it a 7.1 out of 10 — a good rating, but nearly two full points behind television. The students’ complaints centered on two areas: Many complained about buffering and freezing video. Even students who rated the online experience highly said the video froze a lot.
The other main complaint dealt with the service’s scoreboard. Video frequently would lag; but the scoreboards were updated in real time, so viewers would know when a team scored before the video would run.
• Mobile applications are the sleeping giant. Only 11 of the 125 students watched a game via an iPad or iPhone, but those 11 raved about their experience.
Student Mike Tonelli watched the Kentucky-West Virginia game on an iPad while on a bus in Maryland. He said the picture’s resolution was “phenomenal.”
“The video definitely had some spots where it got disrupted,” he said. “But as soon as I hit Wi-Fi and didn’t have to rely on 3G, I didn’t have any glitches.”
Mobile users raved about their devices, even when they had glitches, such as Colin Brown, who watched on his iPhone 3GS with the updated 4.3 operating system.
“There were times when it cut out,” he said. “But one thing I did like was that when it did cut out, it would still give me the audio feed. It wouldn’t lose a beat.”
John Ourand can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.