By HUBERT MIZELL
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 1, 2000
They're cutting local TV sportscasts. Dinnertime news shows are offering fewer jock segments. Sports minutes keep getting squeezed.
Not a good trend if you're Chris Thomas, Al Keck, Jay Crawford or Chip Carter.
In the early '90s, Tampa Bay channels all but surrendered wooing hardcore sports followers, acquiescing to ESPN, CNN/SI and other cable networks wholly dedicated to athletics.
In recent years, three local news directors, controllers of personnel and content, have explained their motives to me, giving near-identical philosophies that went something like this:
Sports nuts turn heavily to ESPN et al. Our success is most determined by public acceptance of news anchors. When weather comes on, most of our audience tends to stay tuned. Interest absolutely declines when we get to sports segments. It's extremely difficult to retain women. Our goal is to do stuff that allows as little drop off in viewers as possible.
Like any business, they must produce acceptable revenues. Ratings are TV's heartbeat. Making a solid profit is an understandable demand, eagerly shared by my newspaper and most any news organization.
Softer features became a TV sports staple. In search of viewers not necessarily attracted to NFL, MLB, NHL or NCAA, cute and superficial features were often favored over substance and depth. Sports traditionalists saw appetites less and less served.
Maybe there's no reversing it. Does anybody complain? Given more time and resources, couldn't TV sports reporters be prompted to deliver more thump? Depending on the nightly news flow, might there be merit to trimming other stuff?
Like the weather.
As a viewer, I often feel overweathered and bombarded with repetitive forecasts, even if the nearest danger is three time zones away. How many ways are there to say, "90 high, 74 low, 80 percent humidity, 10 percent chance of rain?"
Usually, at show's end, there comes a hurried Thomas-Keck-Crawford-Carter appearance. Often, with scant time, they omit even bare scores of significant competitions.
Who/what is to blame?
Conceding that local TV cannot afford to do sports reporting approaching the depth of ESPN, CNN/SI or their network kind, can channels 8-10-13-28 whip up some better deals? My personal shout has to be Ab-so-smacking-lutely!
Here's a little self-quiz for TV news directors who years ago trashed traditional sports reporting methods, and who now whittle at '90s-style softer approaches:
Since we can't be ESPN, what might my station provide, during the fistful of minutes we allocate to sports, material NO network is apt to deliver for hundreds of thousands of our Tampa Bay patrons who do have significant everyday interest in athletics?
How about more authoritative, newsier insights on the Bucs, Devil Rays and Lightning? Work harder at being insiders. With sports anchors taking meaty stands. Thomas can be especially good at commentaries.
With so few minutes to use, give viewers a solid opinion to chew. Be insiders. Make us viewers think, "We can't afford to miss Sportscaster X; he might say something memorable; we might learn something."
Even in the few minutes alloted, local TV sports can be far more savvy, timely and incisive. Wouldn't the audience be receptive to more consistent, authoritative reporters on our state's major college subjects, especially FSU/UF/USF football and basketball?
Be insiders. Travel frequently to Gainesville and Tallahassee to check pulses. Not just on game day.
When hiring reporters, a key criterion could be historic and current knowledge of the Bulls, 'Noles and Gators as well as Bucs, Devil Rays and Lightning. I don't want to see Tampa Bay television, by the year 2009, having erased the need for a Keck, a Carter, a Thomas or a Crawford. In the interest of doing even more weather and showing an extra clip of JonBenet dancing or Baby Sabrina in a diaper.
Can it still be in style for print and broadcast sports reporting to offer solid copy, appropriately illustrated, mixed with stout opinions, dominated by sound news judgment, plus an unyielding strain for accuracy?
Accuracy? Everybody makes mistakes. Newspapers do. I do. Frequently, our sports section runs corrections. Always painful but apropos.
But when did you last hear a "We're sorry" from TV for a botched score or warped fact?
Just last weekend, I heard a local TV sportscaster say the St. Louis Blues had just won Game 6 to eliminate San Jose from the NHL playoffs. In reality, the Sharks won, tying the series at 3.
With local TV in a sports-cutdown mentality, I hope there can be reexamination. Retooling. Be insiders. Take a look at what's being done and what might be done to make it better.
An ample goal for all of us.