Game On: Sportscasting should change—not disappear
On the first day of May sweeps, more Western New York TVs were tuned in to Game 7 of a first-round hockey playoff series on NBC cable than were set to network Channel 2’s comedy lineup, which included a live episode of 30 Rock. On the same night, three times as many WNYers watched the NFL draft on cable’s ESPN than watched the NBC series. And on a daily basis, area shopping malls are loaded with people of both genders wearing Buffalo Bills and Sabres gear. The evidence is clear: Buffalo loves sports—which makes it all the more baffling that local stations WIVB-TV and WKBW-TV have chosen to downsize both staff and airtime allotted to sports.
Couple those decisions with the departures of Channel 4 Sports Director John Murphy, who left to work for the Bills full-time, and his backup, Paul Peck, who is leaving television entirely, and one has to wonder why sports coverage here seems to get as little respect as Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier. Sports fans felt particularly dissed when, three days before May sweeps began, area meteorologists hogged airtime with a false alarm; why, fans wondered, do sports get a few minutes’ coverage for games that actually take place, while weather gets five-to-seven minutes to cover events that don’t?
Ironically, the aforementioned large audiences for the NFL draft and the deciding playoff hockey game on April 26 are part of the explanation. By the time highlights of evening events like these are shown on the 5, 5:30, and 6 p.m. newscasts, they’re old news. And at 10 and 11 p.m., when Channel 2’s Adam Benigni, Channel 7’s Jeff Russo, and Murphy’s Channel 4 replacement are giving their 11 p.m. sports reports, many potential viewers are watching games on cable—tough competition. But this isn’t the whole story.
Channel 2 General Manager Jim Toellner, who started running promos in late April noting that his station has twice as many on-air sports staffers as its competitors, points out that local news viewership skews to females, at about a fifty-five to forty-five percent ratio. During February sweeps, it was even higher, with female viewership ranging from fifty-six to sixty percent. While of course many women—especially in WNY—are interested in sports, it’s widely conceded that men are generally more interested: that ratio, then, is another reason to limit sports coverage.
Yet another is media consultants, who believe—with reason—that sports coverage is less important than news and weather. “If you study minute-by-minute ratings, there often is a drop-off near the end of a newscast when sports come on,” says Toellner. “Serious sports fans usually know the scores and have seen the highlights before the newscast, so [watching] sports [news segments] has become [less of a priority] for viewers.”
Though Toellner acknowledges that sports coverage does, in fact, come last in the newscast because it’s assumed it appeals to the least number of viewers, he does put an asterisk next to his statement about priority: “When there are evolving dynamics to a sports story, it is a big priority here and it moves up in the newscast.” For example, on the first night of sweeps, Benigni, Russo, and Murphy were near the top of the news the night the Bills made Stephon Gilmore their top draft choice.
According to Paul Peck, as the amount of time for sports coverage diminished over the years, he and Murphy fought the consultant perception that sports is the least important part of a newscast. “Sometimes people from out of town don’t understand how important sports are in this town,” Peck says. “What works in Peoria, Illinois, might not work in Buffalo.” Peck’s frustration with the decreasing coverage, requests for pay cuts, and the reduction of the sports staff from three to two when Robin Adams left in 2009, led to his own departure in March.
“With Robin, I thought we operated very efficiently,” says Peck, who primarily covered the Bills, while she covered the Sabres. But after Adams left, if Murphy or Peck had a day off, Channel 4 covered sports with news anchors. Though Peck felt some anchors did well with the help of a sports producer, he also felt it was an unfair and sometimes difficult assignment. “I would never want to be thrown into doing weather or news,” he maintains. “That’s not what I do.”
With Channel 4 and Channel 7 making similar decisions about cutting sports staff, Toellner tried to test the consultant theory about sports’ importance (or lack of) with an experiment on the 10 o’clock news that the station provides to WNYO-TV. For a while, half of the program was sports, and most nights, it was still twice as long as Channel 2’s usual sports coverage. But the experiment proved nothing: increased sports coverage didn’t increase 10 p.m. viewership, and one can easily assume that any potential sports viewers were watching games or coverage on cable.
Which leads to what is probably the biggest reason for diminished sports coverage on local TV: better options. Who needs to see a local station’s highlights of the New York Yankees win when ESPN offers more timely and expanded coverage? Additionally, sports teams now have their own websites and are streaming highlights before local sportscasts even start. The Bills and Sabres websites compete with TV media by delivering more content—interviews and highlights—than any station possibly could.
The ubiquity of sports coverage is making those local news teases seem silly. “The Sabres played a thriller tonight,” a sportscaster is likely to say. “I’ll show you who won after the break.” Puh-leeze. In these days of Twitter and Facebook, anyone who cares who won can find out before the first fifteen-second commercial finishes.
On the other hand, weather reports are just as readily available and yet weather continues to get the same amount or more time than it used to on local newscasts, especially in areas like WNY that can have volatile weather. “News and weather stories are always changing and updating. That is why you see some stations reallocating resources,” Toellner points out, noting that sports coverage has to change to stay relevant. “We need to make it more opinionated, deep, and local,” says Toellner, “more college, high school, amateur, and human interest. That can be a challenge for broad viewership.”
In other words, local TV sports anchors and reporters have to emphasize things cable sports channels can’t, starting with high school sports coverage. Channel 2 has done the best job covering high school sports, primarily because it has twice the sports staff. Staffers on competing stations would be wise to lobby their bosses about the importance of high school sports, which make parents proud and—unlike college and pro sports—feature athletes from the area. High school sports coverage should be viewed as public service; college teams, especially if they are doing well and feature local alumni, are worthy of coverage as well.
Sports anchors would also do well to become more like newspaper columnists. A check of the Buffalo News website shows that sports stories often make the Most Viewed and Most Commented lists because they get people involved. Toellner suggests that sports anchors and reporters need to become more opinionated, and especially be tougher on pro teams when they deserve it. Channel 2’s Benigni is nothing close to News sports columnists Jerry Sullivan or Bucky Gleason, but he looks the most likely to follow in their footsteps.
Finally, lose the teasers; they belong in the twentieth century. Buffalo’s sports-crazy community always welcomes the next challenge, and its local sportscasters should not go down without a fight.
Alan Pergament was the television critic for the Buffalo News for twenty-eight years. He currently is an adjunct professor at the Buffalo State College and Medaille College communications departments.