Nats TV: MASN's Defense
Yesterday's item offering some theories on why the TV ratings for Washington Nationals ballgames are so weak won generally supportive comments here on the big blog, but raised the hackles of MASN insiders, who argue that Nationals broadcasts are every bit as good and every bit as heavily promoted as those of the network's real home team, the Baltimore Orioles.
MASN spokesman Todd Webster takes strong issue with my characterization of the Nats as MASN's "ugly stepchild." "It's just not true," he says, and he argues that "everything has been done equitably."
To my view--and that of many Washington viewers--that watching a Nats game on MASN is a strange experience peppered with reminders that this is a Baltimore-centric sports channel, Webster replies that this is somehow a product of a fevered imagination or a deep animus against the Orioles and their argumentative owner, Peter Angelos.
Webster says he checked with the executive producer of the broadcasts and found that indeed the same technology is used in both O's and Nats casts, including the Pitch Track feature that documents where each pitch lands and the pitch speed graphic, both of which Nats fans find to be a regular presence on the Orioles games, but rarely used in the Washington broadcasts.
"The Nats do get the cool pitch tracker technology," Webster says. "It's an $80,000 piece of equipment that is used by both teams, like a replay, at the discretion of the talent (which, in this case is Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton)." Maybe that's the issue--the O's broadcasters use the toy more and more wisely than do the Nats' crew. In any case, the bottom line is that, to a fan's eyes, one broadcast has more bells and whistles than the other.
Webster catalogues the ways in which the two teams' casts are the same: "The graphics are identical - except for the colors. All of the promos, ticket sales, community events, in-game inventory [are] identical --- both teams get an equal number of promotions. The identical number of games are shown on MASN and MASN2 for both teams - 100 games on MASN; 61 games on MASN2; 40 games on MASNHD."
So how does MASN explain the lousy ratings on Nats games? Injuries. The company's argument is that the stunning number of injuries to key Nats players has so diminished the level of play and the team's overall performance that the games are just not drawing as much attention as they otherwise would.
Other points: MASN concedes that the basic shot of home plate that is a staple of most baseball broadcasts is a major problem at Nationals Park, but the network argues, with merit, that this is a question of poor design by the architects, not any fault of the broadcaster. The camera position is seven stories above the field, making a clear and useful shot impossible. Indeed, when MASN moved its camera two stories lower, the Nats said sorry, you can't do that, and required the network to move back to the sky-high spot. To remedy the lack of a good view of the incoming pitch, MASN has attached a camera to the screen behind home plate, for a low view of home. It's an interesting perspective, though hardly a replacement for the basic view that most teams offer of the pitch.
Webster also argues that MASN has done its share to let people know where to find the startup channel, despite some rough channel positions on local cable systems. "At the start of the 2007 season, when both teams began playing on MASN, the network launched a massive campaign to inform fans where MASN and MASN2 are located on their particular cable system," he says. "We received no complaints from fans unable to find the game on television."
My bottom line: MASN is trying to present itself as a fair and equitable hometown sports channel, but it's just not working. The channel still feels like a Baltimore affair, from the lineup of sponsors to the quality of broadcasters staffing O's games vs. those on the Nats to the other programming on the channel. Yes, there is one Washington talk show on MASN, but it's John Riggins' Redskins-oriented show, with hardly any Nationals content, a sharp contrast to the O's content that is often available on the channel's Baltimore-based shows.
The best regional sports channels offer wall to wall coverage of the local team--NESN is Red Sox heaven, YES is a 24-hour encyclopedia of Yankees heritage and news, and so on. MASN just isn't remotely in that league. Would the Nats still have problems drawing a big audience with a TV channel of their own? Absolutely, but MASN is one of the several factors that explains the weak ratings reported yesterday.
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