Pete Gilbert On The Future Of Sports Coverage On Local TV
When I began an internship at WBAL-TV in the spring of 1995, local TV sports was still living in the golden age. Vince Bagli, Gerry Sandusky and Mark Viviano were all on staff at WBAL. They have been awarded the Maryland State Sportscaster of the Year a combined 17 times by the NSMA. It was an immensely talented group from which I am awfully lucky to have learned so much.
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They had travel budgets for spring training, the NCAA tournaments, bowl games, and of course playoffs. They received plenty of time in newscasts to tell their stories, as they showed you highlights and sound bites you likely had not before seen. I watched them with awe and envy as they did the job I always wanted.
What I didn’t realize though, some stations had already started to shrink the relevance and resources for the sports departments in TV news. News directors had begun to cut the length of time for sports casts, and the idea of having more than two sportscasters in one department had come and gone for many. By the time I returned to WBAL in 2003 as an employee, Gerry was down to two minutes at 6 and 3 minutes at 11.
At the end of my internship, some saw this coming and I was told by plenty of veterans in the business, ‘”Don’t bother with this.” Or, “Find something else, the industry is dying.”
What saved the sports department at WBAL was the NFL. When NBC gained Sunday Night Football, I went from part time to full time. We hired a full time sports photographer and a year later, became the local broadcast partner of the Ravens. That returned the relevance and resources to our department that I’m happy to say, for the most part, remain today.
So, in our little bubble, local TV sports has not yet died. And thank goodness, as my 401K depends on it.
That said, the job has changed dramatically and it’s an evolution that’s just getting warmed up.
Given the technology of social media, the demand for instant news and reaction to it, plus attention spans pulled in so many different directions, the idea of appointment television for a newscast at 6 & 11 feels outdated.
But it’s not dead. The approach though must change.
It’s no longer logical at the 6 PM news to run highlights of a game that happened the night before, and treat them as news. We can’t pretend that the outcome of a 1 PM game is unknown by the 11 PM news. In fact so much of what we do in a sports cast is not news, because you already know.
So what can we give you?
A former news director and mentor made sure I understood that the sports department is different from the rest of the news room in that we are not only allowed to have opinions, but must be willing to share them. In a sense, a local TV sportscaster offers play by play and analysis, all wrapped up in three minutes.
Maintaining interest and relevance then requires opinion. I don’t subscribe to the ESPN-ization of sports broadcasting. HE WHO SCREAMS THE LOUDEST WINS doesn’t fit me and reduces credibility. But pointing out whether the Ravens should have gone defense with their first four picks (yes, return to the roots of their DNA) or whether Melo Trimble should have left for the NBA draft (emphatically no as he’ll play in the D-League now rather than solidify his place as an all time top 5 Terp) gives the viewer a reason to watch. Informed opinion about local topics with professional video production to support the story provides something you won’t get at ESPN, or from a Twitter feed, or while in the back of an Uber. Context and meaning about stories that are important to local sports fans is how to separate from the pack as a sportscaster.
It’s also become necessary to make sure we’re looking ahead. Advancing a story rather than providing highlights from the night before that you’ve already seen.
One of the great things though about social media is the bottomless well of amazing pieces of video. So I need to find the best of those, and share them too. If you know you’ll also get a little entertainment, along with why the Orioles have stumbled their way to first place, then maybe that’s enough to tune in.
Of course, on weekends when we’re loaded with day-of games for the sportscast, then yes, highlights remain the bulk of the show. Making sure we stay as local as possible, combined with the occasional ‘you MUST see this’ kind of play, still feels like something worth tuning in for.
As long as we keep looking ahead, continue to embrace the technology, and are willing to adapt to change I expect the job of a local sportscaster will remain viable. People still want their stories delivered in a professional manner with quality production. Making sure we provide that consistently though must continue for this gig to survive.
At least, that’s what I think. What about you guys? What do you want from a sportscast, or think we’re missing out on? Or maybe, given this is likely a younger crowd than our typical audience on TV-11, does it even matter? I’d like your feedback. Thanks.