Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Mr. TV Announcer

A couple of weeks ago I was talking to a fellow sports reporter who was out of town on assignment. I said to him that a local sportscaster in Buffalo (OK, it was John Murphy) had called for the firing by the Sabres of general manager Darcy Regier and coach Lindy Ruff.

After a quick reaction, I added something like smart-alecky like, "He didn't have time on the newscast to give any reasons." And the reporter said, "Boy, have you got that right!"

That's the shrinking state of sports news on the local television newscasts these days. It's another reminder that nothing lasts forever.

Back when I was growing up, the local television sports anchors were way up the totem pole in terms of the pecking order of media personalities. Here in Buffalo, it seemed that Rick Azar, Van Miller and Ed Kilgore were around forever. In fact, Ed is still around, although he has cut down on his schedule a bit. I used to jump around the dial, seeing what stories and highlights they might have on a given night. Channel 2 came first, and Channel 4 was last, but there sometimes was time to see part of Channel 7's show as well.

The local sportscasters used to get three or four minutes per show, I would guess, back in the Seventies and early Eighties. They broke stories every so often, too. Speaking as a competitor back then in my radio days, I had to keep an eye on what they were doing.

Happily, I also discovered that, once I got to know them, that Buffalo sportscasters rarely had a case of big egos. They were good people, from the veterans mentioned above to others too numerous to mention over the years. In fact, they still are.

But somewhere along the way, in a subtle manner, everything changed.

I can probably point to a couple of factors. ESPN came along with hour-long sportscasts at 6 and 11. Anyone with an interest in a national sports story didn't have to wait until 6:20 or so for a report; it was on at 6 o'clock sharp and could have 10 minutes of coverage if necessary. Plus ESPN had highlights from everywhere; there was no way to compete locally with that aspect of it.

In addition, inevitably, the stakes for ratings points on local newscasts got higher. The consultants took surveys and figured out that sports was low on the priority list for viewers. You might not know that ratings are taken from 6:00:00 to 6:07:30, and from 6:15:00 to 6:22:30. Care to guess where sports news is located? Yup, after 6:22:30. Any later, and sports anchors will be wrapping up the segment and tossing it directly to Brian Williams and David Letterman. The weather turns up right after 6:15, by the way.

Meanwhile, the television stations' news staffs aren't immune to the budget cutting in the news business. There are fewer bodies working in sports departments there, just like at newspapers. That means the remaining staffers have to work very hard just to get a show on the air, without much time to try to research stories. I've heard it's practically a new job description for sports workers these days.

It's a development that surprises me a bit. I know how important local sports news is at our newspaper. If you look at page one of the sports section, local stories usually are featured when possible, and they pop up on the overall front page every so often too. Sports does more than its share of driving traffic to our website.

The television stations do take good-sized local sports stories and move them relatively high in the show (in other words, closer to the top of the hour) when necessary. And they are all over Bills' games in season. It makes me think that there's a niche there, waiting to be exploited. A television station could make an effort to become "your local sports leader" and try to make it a drawing card. It might cost a little money, or at least some reshuffling of resources, but it at least sounds like an interesting gamble.

It's tough to argue with the analysts who have charts saying such a move would be a waste of time and money. Still, I'm old enough to say that I liked things better in the old days. I don't think I'm the only one that feels that way, either.

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