Guest Column – The State of Network TV Sports News

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.

  • APS

    Remember "Sports for Girls" on BCN? "Celtics won, Red Sox lost"

  • bsmfan

    Wow, great read. Even on the fan side, this is a great blueprint. I wanted to comment on one thing before writing a longer response. A week ago we debated the "Cap is Crap" and Bruce even got a mention on SportsHub for the post (I think it was a guest email?). I posted on the board that I had emailed SportsHub (F+M) about getting Andrew Brandt, one of the most respected "NFL Capologist" guys out there (@adbrandt). He might be on, according to the response I got back:

    from: felger

    thanks for the idea….will actually endeavor for next week.

    mf

    — (Some parts removed for obvious reasons).

    F+M/SportsHub, we look forward to it. Andrew Brandt writes about the business side on NFP (http://nationalfootballpost.com) and I think will answer a lot of questions fans have about it.

  • Winning_

    Awesome column Frank, though I don't think the recommendations will ever be applied to the news channels. Sad to say that they just won't ever get it.

  • profootballwalk

    Anyone who criticizes media producers/directors who don't put together a product that will attract eyeballs, and then talks up NCAA women's sports(!!!) can't be taken seriously. This is an embarrassment. Go back to NPR, dude. They already have a Sports For People Who Don't Like Sports show – it's called Only a Game, and they talk up women's college sports all the time.

  • 02062

    I believe either monday or tuesday of the week before is when the locals start promoting what's going to be on the Sunday Night Shows.

    It's ironic that Channel 4's (IMO) is the weakest of the 3.

    They have to have a poll every week. Do you like puppies, unicorns and rainbows (brought to you by fill in the blank)

    Great column Frank.

  • Chris

    Local TV news is full of 'womb-to-the-tomb' dinosaurs who feel theirs is essentially a job entitlement program. Watch the shrieks and howls and lawsuits when one of them doesn't have their contract 'renewed.' But the fact that these people are neanderthals means that they have no ability or incentive to do anything 'new.' Therein lies the rub.

  • Reality Check

    Frank makes his own argument for why local stations SHOULDN'T do half hour sports shows daily, especially during the 5-6:30 news block. First of all, TV is a business. If you can't make money selling it, you're not doing it, period. The 90 minute early evening news block is a huge revenue source and a sports show will not draw the same ad money because women 25-54 won't watch it and putting it at 5:30 would destroy the lead-in to the still-important 6pm (although mornings and 11 are the key battlegrounds right now).

    Sports departments exist at local television stations for a variety of reasons that don't involve in-depth coverage. First is, sports news is news… and you need someone knowledgeable to report it when it happens. Second is to provide pre and post-game programming when you have the rights to games, because those are big movers for the sales department. And third is community relations. Mike Lynch's High 5, or Fox's High School Friday, are perfect examples of this. It engenders good will in the community and gives a specific school a reason to tell everyone to tune in. What happens outside of those three things is more or less irrelevant and as long as it doesn't incur costs, news directors don't care because it won't have much if any on effect on the ratings.

    People are already trained to get their breaking news from ESPN/Internet/Twitter. This applies to TV and newspapers. I haven't read an actual Ian Rapoport printed column in years, but I know what he's reporting on because I follow him on Twitter.

    Frank's column, while well meaning, reads like some kind of dream scenario in an alternate universe where the internet isn't the dominating force in journalism and ad revenues don't matter to television stations.

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