This is a guest column from Frank H Shorr - a senior lecturer and the Director of the Sports Institute at Boston University. He worked at both Channels 5 and 7 in Boston, most recently being the Executive Sports Producer at WHDH-TV for twenty one years.
It’s called “Local Sports” but you know what? It’s not, really.
If the network affiliates in Boston want to get an audience back, I think they’d better change the approach – and that goes all the way up to the television station GM’s and the owners.
This isn’t meant to be the rant of a “dinosaur” but let’s be honest, the sports fans of today aren’t tuning into the six and eleven o’clock news to find out what’s going on – no revelation there, right? So how can they change that? Well, how about following a few simple rules, three to be exact
1) Advance The Story.
2) Tell Them Something They Don’t Already Know.
3) Tell The Story of the Game Through the Pictures You Use.
That last one is done pretty effectively in this market, BUT when news directors and producers, (who mis-time) keep the reins on the local sports departments, fans get short-changed.
How can you possibly tell the story of a game that lasts two to three hours in 30 seconds? Yeah, you can try, and believe me I did it for years, but while I’m not advocating the return of the eight-minute sportscast, circa 1985, let’s be honest here, if you’re presenting an hour and a half or two hours of news in the early evening, you oughta be able to give the sports guys a block of time to both attract an audience and exhibit their own capabilities (good writing, better storytelling).
Just an aside here, notice I said “guys” – with the exception of Kristine Leahy at FOX25, there’s nary a woman on a local network affiliates! Which begs the question, what does NESN and CSSNE know that channels 4,5 and 7 don’t?
So yes, time is an issue but so is formatting.
That brings us to cardinal rule number one, advancing the story. It’s the most important factor in any news story, be it sports, politics, weather, business.
Let’s examine – If you start a story “The (Patriots, Bruins, Red Sox, Celtics) beat the (name your opponent) last night”, as virtually every sportscast in this market does, you’ve lost before even getting started. Why? Because viewers already know the result. By six o’clock the next day and many times by eleven that same night, they’ve watched recap upon recap on their portable devices, on ESPN, on NFL Network, NBATV, MLB Network, and NHL Network and all the websites. When viewers hear that opening line the first thing they say is “nothing new has happened, I don’t have to watch this guy(this station) – click! – as in, click, I’m changing the channel.
Conversely, this is exactly why beginning sports journalists flourish in the smaller markets. Unlike Boston, and other professional markets, ESPN isn’t covering Tyler, Texas and Panama City, Florida and Walla Walla, Washington so the local stations there have a captive audience. If you live there, it’s your only outlet. Sports will always be king. But for the Boston network affiliates to concentrate on only “The Big Four” is simply a waste of time. Having a reporter put together a Patriots package for Monday at 6:00, shortchanges the viewer. You’re NOT advancing the story.
And that brings us to rule number two, “tell ‘em something they don’t already know.” Repeating yesterday’s(last night’s) score in the lead in just doesn’t qualify. Viewers are thirsty for something new, something they can share, and are you ready – something they can tweet! Sure, news doesn’t break every day but it’s your job to keep the audience coming back for more and it can be done with a little elbow grease. The Boston sports landscape has completely changed when it comes to disseminating information. Tom Curran, Rob Bradford, Mike Reiss, Ian Rapoport, Paul Flannery, Shalise Manza Young to name a few, have burst onto the scene with instant up-to-the minute coverage. Recap sportscasts don’t bring ‘em into the tent.
The late night Sunday shows do very well in Boston. Why? For a couple of reasons, certainly a half an hour helps but the approach is vastly different – Live guests, commentary, longer form story telling – it’s more interesting. So here’s the question – why can’t they do that EVERY DAY? The sixty-four thousand dollar question.
Which brings us back full circle to the station GM’s and owners. Anytime fans debate the fortunes (and demises) of a team, they always eventually say “it starts at the top,” so which owner, which GM, which News Director is willing to surrender thirty minutes (say 5:30-6) for a daily sports show? Who’s the pioneer? Certainly there’s an audience there and what better way for a department to showcase the truly “local” stories, the high schools (thank you, Mike Lynch) the NCAA women’s teams in this market that get virtually no coverage, i.e. BU, BC, Harvard soccer teams to name a few, the casual sports even. It would show a real commitment both in resources and time. The Newsies would still have the 5 and 6 o’clock half hours for their “off the satellite” reports from parts unknown. And what do you think the response from the news producers and writers would be if they knew they had a thirty minute break between shows? Guess what, their product would be fresher, better written, better presented. A win-win all around.
It’s time for something different in local network affiliate sports coverage. The cable outlets are running twenty-four hours a day and producing their own local shows, many wrapped around the games that draw big numbers. It’s time to compete again – take a chance!
Frank H. Shorr is a senior lecturer and the Director of the Sports Institute at Boston University. He worked at both Channels 5 and 7 in Boston, most recently being the Executive Sports Producer at WHDH-TV for twenty one years.