Funt: Baseball's gimmicks won't win over youths
The new baseball season has its usual quotient of obnoxious on-field innovations, such as the time clock that will now govern visits by managers and coaches to the pitcher's mound. Like most fiddling with our Great American Pastime, the motivating force is the television audience, specifically younger viewers who are not embracing the sport.
Over the last decade the median age of viewers watching baseball on ESPN's national telecasts has climbed from 46 to 53. But can that trend be reversed with digital timers? Or more TV cameras? How many fancy graphics can be squeezed onto the screen? When does baseball's sponsor clutter reach a tipping point?
During spring training I watched several of the San Francisco Giants webcasts: free, no-frills feeds accessible online. What I learned is that TV coverage, like baseball itself, is more enjoyable without many of the hi-tech artifices that now weigh down regular-season telecasts.
The spring webcasts are produced on a shoestring with one or two small cameras. The first thing viewers notice is that the basic shot is from behind home plate, rather than from above the center field fence. This is a throwback to TV's early days, before zoom lenses made possible the shot we're now used to, looking in at the batter from over 400 feet away.
For me, baseball is easier to digest when viewed from behind the plate, from a position slightly toward the first base side. If money were no object, wouldn't you rather sit in a prime box seat than out in the bleachers?
Broadcasters favor the center field shot, popularized in the mid-sixties, because it offers a better view of pitches. This goes hand-in-hand with much of today's color commentary that tends to obsess over pitch selection, speed and placement.
The old view allows your eye to follow the action logically when the ball is put in play. With modern coverage, on the other hand, each hit requires a camera cut of as much as 180 degrees — something directors call "crossing the axis." Such moves are generally avoided in filmmaking because they force your brain to reestablish perspective, yet in baseball telecasts this type of cutting is a staple.
Today's center field shot also has too much clutter: half the screen is filled with faces of fans behind the plate along with advertising on the railing.
Speaking of clutter, the spring webcasts are mercifully graphics-free. Yes, it would be nice to see players' names and batting stats, but a totally uncompromised picture — no ads, logos or other intrusions — makes it easier to watch games without today's dizzying distractions.
Since cameras are limited, the webcasts are also devoid of annoying crowd shots. No need to see fans' funny hats, spilled popcorn and lame attempts to catch foul balls. And no homemade signs!
Unlike basketball, football and other sports in which the action moves mostly left and right within a uniformly shaped rectangle, baseball's irregular playing fields have always challenged TV producers. The slow pace of play — which Major League Baseball is desperately trying to address by timing visits to the mound and tightening breaks between innings — promotes additional TV fluff.
TV directors have tried blimp shots, mini-cams buried in the ground, super slow-motion replays, K-zone graphics, laser tracking of the ball's flight, and countless other tricks. My take: younger viewers don't really care, and older fans are usually annoyed.
After watching spring webcasts I'm convinced that when it comes to televised baseball, less is more. Less commentary, less camera cutting, less on-screen clutter and less off-field distraction.
A version of this spartan approach can be seen during the regular season in coverage of minor-league games online, via Milb.com. These webcasts vary widely from team to team, but some come close to capturing what the Giants achieve in spring training.
Baseball has a lot at stake in its lucrative TV deals. I'm not literally suggesting a return to single-camera telecasts anymore than I'd advocate going back to black-and-white. But TV overkill is hurting.
As I see it from the couch, baseball is a marvelously complex game, best viewed in a relatively uncomplicated form.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker. He can be reached at www.CandidCamera.com.