Monday, March 23, 2009

Local TV Stations Must Invest in Sports

First and foremost, I need to apologize for not blogging more often. It's been over two months. I've got both reasons and excuses, but it's unnecessary to list them. I owe devoted readers an, I apologize.

Careful observation of the 'local television news' landscape shows an alarming trend. Across the country, respected and market-leading stations are dumping their sports departments. If they aren't dumping them, they're gutting them.

Many stations have stopped investing money, show time and (most importantly) concern in these reporters and anchors. Ever since Richard Huff in the New York Daily News started beating the drum about whether or not local sportscasts are needed, a national discussion about the topic has heated up.

In his article, Huff discusses how small market audiences could generally do without sportscasts. But, in his opinion, the larger markets such as New York could not. In fact, the opposite is true.

As often is the case, Huff was probably foreshadowing a future column. Three days later, two sports anchors at WCBS got axed and Huff had the story. WCBS had made cuts to their sports staff and programming in the previous year and perhaps Huff got wind that more cutbacks were on the way.

But, as far as the necessity of local television sports coverage is concerned, Huff is dead wrong.

It's not his fault, he's looking at it from the 'big media' market perspective. Large market fans have it general. In New York, Boston, L.A., Detroit, Philly, etc., there are multiple options to get content. If you're a Celtics or Red Sox fan, as I am, you don't have to go any further than SportsCenter if you want scores, quick highlights and brief analysis. Large market sports coverage is generally slightly more in-depth and gets a few more minutes of time on game nights. Lots of large market network affiliates have created additional sports programming like call-in shows or weekly 'coach talks' to give fans more content.

Most of those major cities also have their own city or regional cable outlets. MSG, NESN, Comcast, etc. Those cable groups carry the sports content the rest of the day. There is no need or want for more coverage. So, it's easy to say that 'local' sports coverage from the network affiliates isn't necessary or at times irrelevant.

However, if you're a 'medium media' market sports fan, cheering on teams in Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Memphis, Oakland, etc., you can't get that kind of access via the national cable media. You can only turn to regional cable (FoxSports Pittsburgh) or your local stations. After that, it's up to the fan to surf the Web.

It's important to note these regional cable guys get a lot of respect from the community. The best in the business is Dan Potash at FoxSports Pittsburgh. He's so big, people post video of him walking past them on YouTube. That's pretty big.

And, unfortunately for the 'small media' market sports fans, you've got very little media content to rely on. Sure there's always the Web; but after that, it's up to local radio and local television coverage. And, if station managers buy into this mantra that sports coverage isn't necessary, these fans will suffer tremendously. And suffer for no reason.

It's important to clearly identify my bias. I was a sports reporter and anchor at WDTV in Clarksburg/Bridgeport, West Virginia. I may NEVER live THIS picture down, but I loved my time there. And occasionally miss it a great deal.

Our market was media market #166. There are only 210, so our station fit the 'small market' group. In our little neck of the woods, we served North Central West Virginia and essentially rode the coattails of the West Virginia University Mountaineer athletic teams.

We fared as they fared. When they played well or made postseason bowl games or tournaments, we produced special half-hour shows and brought in thousands of additional advertising monies to the station. If the teams did poorly, our shows reflected it.

But, in our viewing area in the great state of WV, we were IT for local sports. While our competitors averaged three minute nightly sportscasts, we averaged five minutes. On weekends, we would receive unprecedented chunks of the evening news. Our sportscasts would average anywhere from eight to ten minutes or more every Saturday and Sunday night. In our newsroom, it was established that sports would 'earn their time' and we certainly did. We were all local, all the time.

And we were good at it. When the state-wide awards roll around every year, WDTV is well represented in sports despite only having two full-time staff members in the department. I've got a few plaques to prove it.

During my time at WDTV, I coveraged dozens (and I mean dozens) of Little League All-Star tournament games. I'm talking about first round tournament elimination games for 8 & 9 year-olds. I've never heard/seen of another station doing that. But, the local people loved us for it. No matter where I went, people recognized us as the leader in TV sports in our area.

Our competitors had more resources, but we had the will, work ethic and attitude to dominate our market. And, as far as sports coverage is concerned, we DOMINATED. People respected us and watched the news for our stuff. I knew more than one person who set their alarm clocks to wake up in time for our morning sports report. That meant a lot to us.

Much of that success was due to the tenacity of sports director Joe Brocato. When I took the job, I had no idea what I was getting into. But, I knew right out of the gate that I had never met a guy like Joe. He outworked everyone. His passion for his job is incredible. He made me care about every story and about every person. He was my mentor and greatly influenced my approach to my job and broadcasting. Joe cared more about the daily effort than any person I have ever met. And Joe wanted to win every sportscast, every night. He is a competitor.

And his passion and intensity affected everyone in the newsroom and even in management. Joe had to fight for our time, but he won a lot of battles and earned their respect. Sports coverage was appreciated and cherished at WDTV. Maybe not all of the time or to the extent we wanted it, but we were respected.

But, that respect came from our hard work and willingness to cover any story. We never lost sight of the role we were playing for local sports fans.

Unfortunately, lots of televisions sportscasters have lost their ways. Too many are comfortable in running national stories, slapping video over it, sending out a photographer to shoot a game for them and wrapping it up in two minutes every night at 10 or 11. They got lazy and unwilling to do the work. If they don't shape up or get out of the way, sports on local television may perish.

When you apply for sports reporting/anchoring jobs, every news director puts the words "I don't want any SportsCenter want-to-be's applying" in the job description. But, lots of news directors didn't practice what they preached. They didn't demand local coverage and medium market sports reporters started focusing on national stories.

I don't want to sound too harsh here. I know all of the work that goes into's quite a lot. But honestly, watching local TV sports where I live now makes me sick. I've got DirecTV in a market-less place in Virginia. Because of that, we get Richmond, VA news pumped in via satellite and I've watched them all.

And, while I hate to say it to guys/gals I respect, Richmond TV sports coverage is garbage.

-They don't run enough local content.
-They don't get off their rear ends to shoot enough local content.
-They don't get much time to show it in anyways.
-They don't seem to care much either.

The top locally-rated news station is WWBT, NBC 12. NBC 12 has been kicking tail in the ratings for years. Last December, a week before Christmas, they canned their sports director along with several other staff members. Then sports director Ben Hamlin had been with the station for 28 years. As a viewer and former reporter, I felt his reports and content were getting stale. Lots of national stuff without much of a local focus. But, he was a great on-air persona and clearly respected by the community. He deserved better and so did NBC 12's viewers.

NBC 12 also runs the content for FOX 35 News and the station lists only two sports anchor/reporters. That's two guys to cover all of the stories, night in and night out, for two stations. It's ridiculous and insulting.

I don't blame Jamie or Joe, NBC 12's sports guys. I don't know them personally. But, I watch them when I can. And when I watch, I see two guys that are knowledgeable about sports in the area yet seem detached from it as well. I believe the blame lies on their newsroom management. They aren't provided with the time or resources to show us much else.

As a viewer, I demand more.

As a former 'sports guy,' I am downright angry.

Whenever we worked our tails off to create a half-hour show or fly across the country to continue to provide coverage for our viewers, we never saw an additional dime. But, our managers and sales staff did. They sold our reports in special sponsorship ad packages to local businesses. Almost everything we did for high school football or 'bonus' coverage was stamped by a car dealership or law firm. All of that was extra dough to cover our trip expenses and pad the commissions for whatever salesperson could work a telephone.

Though I could complain more, I'll move on. Long story short, whenever we worked hard and did our job, the station made more money. We also got more viewers. It was always at our expense...our time, our sweat, our work. But, the station and our viewers were better for it.

That's why opinions like that of Huff's are incorrect. Local television sports coverage is good for the local fan. But station managers across the country are forgetting that.

Consider this case in Scranton, PA. Three different stations with three different approaches. WNEP is the area's #1 station and, interestingly enough, is the one station in the bunch that prides itself on airing nightly sportscasts. They trimmed their time, but are the only station committed to nightly sportscasts in their market. They have three reporters/anchors to work for their station, while NBC 12 in Richmond has two. Scranton is media market #54, Richmond is #58.

Many news directors claim they are investing in airing more local news stories, but how can we actually know if that is the case? A few more seconds for weather or another commercial, and that time is gone. And, stations are literally turning away viewers.

I urge station managers and news directors to take a chance on local sports coverage. Don't limit their coverage or time, force the anchor/reporters to go and seek more stories. Television journalists aren't working for their stories much anymore, they show up to events and piece-meal soundbites together. Not a lot of time for investigative pieces nowadays. But, to win over the viewers and keep them tuned in, news directors need to train and then to trust their staff.

People say local TV sports is dying. It will only die if the sports reporters sit idly by and allow it to. They need to aggressively attack their audience by getting back out into the communities. Talking at high school events, visiting classes, actually GOING to local games, covering the 'fringe' sports, etc.

By covering Little League baseball, we hooked viewers for life. If a parent was truly appreciative of us showing their eight year-old punch a double to score a run in an all-star game one Tuesday night, they would keep tuning in to see what else we were showing. Those viewers stuck around.

That is what makes Joe the most recognizable sports guy in the northern part of the state. Even now, years removed from working in the area, when I meet someone from North Central always comes up.

"I know you from somewhere. You worked at WDTV, right? You worked with Joe Brocato?!? Cool. I watch him all the time."

I'm always proud of that. Proud to be associated with a fine product and with a fine man.

News directors need to invest time in local sports or more viewers will stop investing time with those stations.

Don't push sports viewers to cable, because news viewers will follow them. If that happens, local TV news will die.

And no one will be watching to mourn it.