Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Why network television is like Major League Baseball

With the All-Star game happening tonight, I thought this would be an appropriate post. 

I know this sounds like a Fairy Tale, but there was a time when a broadcast network would pick up a show and a showrunner would run it. He would make all the creative decisions. He would decide on casting. He would choose the stories, and he would hire writers to write them and directors to stage them.

During filming, he was the one who determined whether they needed a re-take. He was the one who approved the wardrobe. He alone determined that a new line was necessary, or that a close-up was required.

He would have a vision for the series, which he would carry out. If he was right the series became a hit. If he was wrong the network cancelled him, which was fair.

In Major League Baseball a team would hire a manager. He would hire his staff. He would have a certain approach to how he thought he could build a winning team. He would work with the front office to bring in the kind of players that fit his approach.

During the game he would make all the on-field decisions. He would substitute players, he would determine when a starting pitcher needed to come out and just which pitcher would relieve him. When to bunt, and when to hit-and-run, and when to walk batters intentionally was his call alone.

How he chose to motivate his team was his call as well. Was he fiery? Fatherly? Scholarly?

And if his team continued to lose he got fired. And that was fair. Another manager with another approach would take his place.

But that was “Once Upon a Time.”

Today networks own their shows. They hire showrunners to carry out their vision, whether they have a vision or not. They tell the showrunner who he can cast, which writers and directors he can hire. They approve the stories. Based on research, they call the shots.

During filming, they must be satisfied before moving on to a new scene. They dictate camera angles. They request new lines. For the most part, the showrunner is an order taker. And when the reviews are bad, the showrunner is expected to take the blame.

In baseball, the front office now firmly controls the on-field direction. Armed with analytics, they cobble together a roster that looks best on paper. They hire a young manager who will slavishly follow their approach.

During the game, the front office texts the manager telling him when to remove his starting pitcher. They often make out the line-up for him. They make strategic decisions and expect the manager to carry them out. And when those decisions blow up, the manager is expected to take the heat.

The parallel is obvious. And so are the results. Broadcast networks continue to lose audiences. The few hits they have are piloted by old school showrunners who have earned the right of autonomy – Chuck Lorre, Dick Wolf, Shonda Rhimes. And even they are fleeing for other platforms.When they're gone they will be replaced by young showrunners who will fall in line. 

In baseball you have Bruce Bochy, Joe Maddon, and Terry Francona – three managers with World Series rings. And then a parade of younger managers who “relate well to the players” and embrace the front office game plan. In other words, they get those in-game texts and carry out the orders, whether they agree with them or not. Bochy is retiring after this year.  Which 30 year-old with no big league managerial experience will replace him? 

The result: Every team is working off the exact same numbers, following the same direction, and games now are all 3:30, there are a million strike outs, a ton of home runs, and nothing else. Fifteen minutes can go by between batted balls in play. Six or seven relievers come into the game for each team on a regular basis. What once was a delicious chess game is now a computer program.  Let's see what the ratings are tomorrow for the All-Star Game.  I'm not predicting a home run. 

For network television and baseball to get better, to attract more fans, I think the solution is simple.



Anonymous said...

Joe Maddon is not a very good manager.
He won with a Cubs team loaded with talent - barely.They might not have won with out a last minute rain delay.
Since then his teams have underperformed the last two years and are underperforming this year.
He's had catchers in the outfield, fat guys who don't get on base leading off, and weak hitting shortstops occasionally hitting cleanup.
But he jokes with reporters and gets good press.

Douglas Trapasso said...

Possible Friday Question:

Paraphrasing a question from the recent candidate debates, if -you- were made Baseball Commissioner, and had full autonomy, what three changes would you make in your first 100 days?

Michael said...

Do network execs throw chairs during meetings with showrunners like the Mets GM recently did during meeting with manager and coaches?

Jeff Boice said...

You bring up a sore spot with me. I remember Game 2 of the Giants-Nats Divisional Series. Nats manager Matt Williams always went by his charts. Jordan Zimmerman retires 20 Giants in a row and then with 2 out in the 9th, he walks a batter. Williams pulls Zimmerman for Drew Storen who promptly gives up the game tying hit. Nats lose in 18. Afterwards Williams is asked why he pulled Zim- Williams gives this astonished look and says he went by his charts. Somewhere Casey Stengel is frowning.

One of these days some owner will put all those charts on a computer program and hire Alexa to manage the team. If Bill Veeck were still around he might do that as a gimmick.

E. Yarber said...

I run into too many wannabe writers who aren't really interested in saying anything or presenting a personal point of view. They're not concerned with the audience, and if they think of them at all it's from a position of contempt. Their work is only directed toward anyone who can further their careers, who get slavish deference in return. These would-be company men are happy to be told what to say, how to say it, because it removes any worries that they're risking themselves. That's exactly what the bosses want. Everybody's happy except the viewers.

VincentS said...

Sad but true, Ken.

Michael said...

Ken just told major league baseball and network television to get off his lawn.

But he's right.

Now, as his and my idol would say, an asterisk and a footnote.

I do not know how many teams have front office executives telling managers during games who to play and how to play them. But I do know that managers rarely controlled their own roster, unless they owned the team (hello, Connie Mack) or had a lot of power (hello, John McGraw). The manager collaborated in choosing the roster and sometimes chose his coaches, but certainly not always.

A couple of Dodgers who were not big fans of Walter Alston said that when Buzzie Bavasi was GM, he would tell him at times who to play. But the difference was, it was Alston's game once the first pitch was thrown. And I notice from Mike Scioscia leaving the Angels that they may now have the analytics they want, but it doesn't seem to have gotten them anywhere.

Then again ... I spent 20 years watching the best manager in baseball at getting a team ready to play on the field, who was also the worst manager in baseball at strategy on the field. He has two World Series rings, was clearly responsible for the team winning the second one of them, and is in the Hall of Fame.

Unknown said...

"Thanks to the Continental army, the baseball all star game was still played during the Revolutionary War"
-Mark McKamert, Trump U class of 2013

MikeN said...

Cmon, Ken. Terry Francona won the World Series when he was hired because the previous manager had ignored the sabermetric analysis of the higher-ups(though the advanced sabermetrics of the game shows that Pedro Martinez pitched very well even after being left in).

Dan Ball said...

This is just another way that the corporate sector is suffocating the life out of our society. The suits are so worried about their investments and responsibilities that releasing control of the product to the producers--not their managers--is too great a risk to the investors. They know how to strategically move the money around, so, obviously (to no one else but them), they should know how to strategically handle everything else. The TV show, the ball team, the restaurant chain, the customer experience, etc. They have the power to surround themselves with yes-folk who won't challenge that perception and won't show them the light. So everything good that the lower folks bring to the product or service--the personality, the quality, the uniqueness, the excellence, the excitement--is all diluted to reveal nothing to the consumer but the cheap money grab.

In the name of baseball and great network TV, we should retake our country from the suits.

Jeff P said...

I've been watching baseball since the late 1950's......Today's game has no soul......too many stupid hand-signals back to the dugout after a routine single....too much bat flipping.....too much of the same 'ol every day. No more small ball....Didn't watch last night...won't watch tonight....baseball is not "must see" in my house......

sanford said...

I disagree that Joe Maddon is a bad manager. Yes it is true the almost lost the World Series with his choice of even putting Chapman in when it wasn't a save situation. Just looking at last year the Cubs won 95 games. The Cubs just didn't hit in the playoff against the Brewers in the wild card game. He lost his closer for most of the season. Darvish was terrible and was done for the season in May. Chatwood was terrible. Certainly not Maddon's fault. All managers make some bad moves They lost Strope for the last part of the season. That might be on Maddon. He let him bat and he strained his hamstring. Of course shit happens. Contreras also had a hamstring problem after running out a ground ball. Bryant missed something like 40 games and didn't hit at all last year. Yet they one 95 games last year. What bad managing. If the Cubs don't give him another contract some team will sign him in 5 minutes. Boche is retiring. I would look for the Giants to sign him. I would say the Mets would be interested but I don't know if Maddon would want to go to a team with such problems and a GM that doesn't seem to know what he is doing.

sanford said...

I think Jeff P wants to go back to the dead ball era. I have been watching baseball as long as Jeff. Maybe a few years longer. I can remember my father taking me to a Cubs-Giants doubleheader in 1954. And I remember going to opening day at Comiskey Park in 1956. I know analytics has changed the game a lot. And one can get involved in that as much as one wants. I would like to see the ball put in play more, but you can't keep pitchers from throwing fast. And you can't stop hitters from working pitchers for a walk or to tire them to get to the pen. When relief pitchers can throw over 95 miles an hour I don't know why hitters would want to do that. Granted not every bull pen is great. Just look at the Nationals.

Anonymous said...

Your memory rang a bell.
My father took me to Comisky Park when Ted Williams was in his final year/farewell tour.
That and watching a Shriner's pre-season game at Soldiers field round about the same time period.
Funny how memory tricks one. I had "remembered" it as a crosstown game between the Cardinals and the Bears (both Chicago teams at the time) but checking the google machine I was obviously wrong.
Bears and Cubs at Wrigley.
Cardinals and White Sox at Comiskey.

Coram_Loci said...

Complexity overtakes simplicity? Shocking.
Nerds find a forum in sports? Shocking.

Leaving aside the broader societal implications, baseball people (the athletes and nerds) are playing to win rather than to entertain. The game is by them and for them. Fan fun may have always been incidental, but nowadays advanced statistics elbows out more of those incidents.

When fans in winning cities conclude that winning isn't fun enough, then maybe things will change. Until then umpires should call: Work Ball! And fans should put down the hot dog pick up a calculator. Because math is fun.

MikeKPa. said...

Comparing baseball to networks makes me wonder, past successes and Q scores aside, are the networks into analytics?