Turning a Game Into a TV Event

Sep 20, 2004  •  Post A Comment

By Hillary Atkin

For ESPN in spring and summer, Sunday night means baseball. Sharing regular season major league games with Fox, the sports network puts heavy-duty resources into its premier Sunday night telecast, aiming to give the weekly game World Series-level coverage.

“`Sunday Night Baseball’ has always been the definitive game of the week and the only exclusive national prime-time telecast,” said Tim Scanlan, ESPN’s senior coordinating producer for MLB. “And starting this season, it’s in high definition. We use 18 to 20 cameras, and we use them to tell a story. Access is key, to managers and players, and that’s something significant and distinctive about our coverage.”

ESPN has been in business with Major League Baseball since 1990. Telecasts begin with spring training games, move into opening day and then, throughout the season, continue with “Wednesday Night Doubleheaders,” “ESPN Daygame,” “Monday Night Baseball,” the Home Run Derby and All-Star programming, and the MLB Division Series.

Coverage is augmented by the network’s baseball news show of record, “Baseball Tonight.” Hosted by primary anchor Karl Ravech with analysts Peter Gammons and Harold Reynolds, the show airs twice a day, seven days a week, helping to bring such phrases as “web gem” and “walk-off home run” into the national baseball lexicon.

“`Baseball Tonight’ is the `60 Minutes’ of baseball, where people go for their nightly fix,” said Len DeLuca, ESPN’s senior VP of programming strategy. “It is a baseball fan’s addiction in the best possible sense.”

ESPN feeds that addiction by making baseball part of its DNA, with five game telecasts per week. “Our challenge is not to sit back, but to ask how can we make ourselves more indispensable to fans,” said Mr. DeLuca. “That’s why we keep trying new things and new technology.”

Among the new bells and whistles featured in the past few years is K-Zone, which accurately outlines the strike zone and pitch location using a computer-generated on-screen graphic. The technology won a Sports Emmy in 2002. It debuted on “Sunday Night Baseball” in 2001 and this season was added to “Monday Night Baseball.”

This is the third season that players have been miked, but to spare delicate ears the audio stream is not used live. “It’s taped re-air only,” said Mr. Scanlan. “We have to listen to it, make sure it doesn’t embarrass the player, his team or the opposing club, then we turn it around.”

In the future Mr. Scanlan sees more access, with more microphones on more than one or two players on a team. “It’s about the sights, sounds and strategy and bringing you to places you heretofore had not gone,” he said. “Coverage will also improve. We’ll show you the tight close-up that shows the drama, the pressures of a big at-bat. You want that camera right on the face and eyes of the pitcher and batter.”

The game plan is always to take the viewer inside the game and show the intricacies of what’s happening, with the inside knowledge and experience of an analyst like Joe Morgan, who has been in the booth on Sunday nights with Jon Miller for 15 years.

“I have a love for the game, and my place as a player is secure because I’m a Hall of Famer,” Mr. Morgan said. “My place as a broadcaster is to do it for the fans.”