In the third inning of the third game of the National League Championship Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants on Fox, Matt Carpenter came to bat for the Cardinals. The 26-year-old rookie was replacing Carlos Beltran, who had left the game with an injury. At 6’3” and 200 lbs, Carpenter is not a small man, but in that moment he looked like a Little Leaguer—lacking the extra coating of sculpted muscle that says Professional Athlete. Then he belted a home run into the right field stands to put the Cardinals ahead and seemed to suddenly add two inches and 20 pounds. As he strode across home plate, into the dugout, and down a line of teammates waiting to slap hands, Carpenter was followed by the “DirecTV Home Run Cam.” I know this because a box appeared in the upper right corner of the screen telling me so.
This is the trade-off that sports viewers constantly face: more and better coverage in exchange for commercial creep. In this instance, it was roughly an even deal. For a satellite provider to slap its name on what is essentially a guy with a camera chasing a ballplayer is mildly annoying. But then, getting a little closer to Carpenter in his moment of triumph was genuinely cool. Unfortunately it’s not always so. No NBA pre-game promo cross-cutting between game footage and clips from a big-budget action flick has ever been anything but irritating. When Ford pays for a commentator to present “tonight’s keys to the game,” nonsense usually follows. And whatever the robot that prances around the screen during Fox football broadcasts is supposed to add, it’s not working.
As a spectacle, baseball is more fragile than basketball and football. (Cue a trumpet mournfully playing Take Me Out to the Ballgame as Ken Burns pans his camera across a photo of Babe Ruth.) It’s quieter. The ball is smaller. The action unfolds in fits and starts. Even without instant text polls sponsored by T-Mobile (DTE:GR), Spiderman tie-ins, or the Aflac duck wandering into the frame, it can be hard to pay attention. This is just as true, by the way, at the ballpark. Between Jumbotron trivia games, sausage races, clap-clap-clap-your-hands sound bites, kiss cams, beer vendors, and reminders about next week’s bobble-head giveaway, the experience sometimes feels designed to make sure you never notice the men in pajamas wandering around on the grass.
The good news, though, is that Fox and TBS, who split this year’s playoff coverage, with Fox getting the World Series, seem to understand this. Yes, there are DirecTV Home Run Cams, promos set to the new Bruce Springsteen album, and about a hundred Gatorade jugs in every dugout. In Detroit, the camera lingers on a Chevy Camaro parked precariously above the leafy fountain behind center field. Viewers are still welcomed back from commercials by Geico or Liberty Mutual. And a big chunk of real estate along the backstop is given over to a green screen on which the networks project ads for Bank of America or Budweiser. But most of the time, when you’re not watching Viagra ads with middle-aged men doing macho things in a weird, sewage-green world, or learning how much Samsung (0059:30:KS) hates Apple fanboys, you’re seeing baseball—and surprisingly little else.
There are small variations in the approach between the two networks. Fox goes for lots of super close-ups of the pitcher’s face, which can make the game feel like a Kevin Costner movie. TBS tends toward wider angles that feel more like watching from the stands. The two keep the same basic game information pasted in the corners of the screen. Fox splits the display in two, while TBS combines it in one big box. Generally both let the game fill the frame.
Even when they do get in the way, they’re trying to help. Fox is a little too pleased with its new replay camera that captures 5,000 frames per second and slows the action down to an underwater crawl. “You’re going to learn to love that camera, Tim,” play-by-play announcer Joe Buck told partner Tim McCarver during game two of the NLCS. I’m not so sure. Mostly what you learn from replays at this speed is that people make contorted faces when they try to throw a baseball 95 miles per hour and that it’s a wonder any human arm can survive the torque of throwing a single breaking pitch. TBS, for its part, could probably do without the graphic in the lower left corner of the screen that shows the location of every pitch as it crosses the plate. It’s great information, but almost impossible to look away from. Fox wisely saves its tracker for borderline pitches only.
For me, the biggest distraction concerns the announcers. I want to make a special plea to all networks everywhere to abandon in-game interviews with players and coaches. They are uniformly awkward and useless. During the middle innings of these playoffs, both networks have gone live to the dugout to talk to a manager, coach, or starting pitcher for an upcoming game. Sample conversation featuring Joe Buck and Adam Wainwright of the Cardinals: “How much do you look forward to that effort tomorrow?” Wainwright: “I am fired up for that.” Buck tries, but even he seems to know how stupid the exercise is. “We’ll get back to doing what we do,” he told Matt Cain of the Giants during game two, “and you get back to doing what you do.” Yes, please.
On this score, TBS has the better of Fox, not because its crew of Ernie Johnson, Ron Darling, and John Smoltz necessarily had better things to say than Buck and McCarver, but because they tended to talk less. At one point, during the American League Championship Series between the Detroit Tigers and the New York Yankees, Tigers catcher Alex Avila hit a single to right field. Ernie Johnson called the play as it happened. Then no one said anything for nearly 15 seconds, just crowd noise and scenes from the field. It was beautiful.