Thursday, March 31, 2022

Apple TV, Peacock ... Anything for a Buck

Every year, MLB forces its fans to work harder to find where their team's games are broadcast.

Back in olden times, when I first became a fan of the New York Mets, not all games were televised. However, there was one easy way to check if you weren't sure: you walked over to your television and tuned it to WOR, Channel 9. It was easy to keep track of, and — as long as you had an antenna capable of tuning in Channel 9 — you could enjoy every broadcast Mets game for free.

I grew up in Hamden, Connecticut. For those not familiar with the area, it's a few miles inland north of New Haven. When I first started watching the Mets, watching games on WOR was a challenge. You had to precisely dial the tuner to get the game in at all, and often had to retune several times during a game. Weather conditions were a factor. A big storm could interrupt a game for several minutes or longer, without regard for games that had reached a crucial turning point. More than once, we waited breathlessly for the picture to come back to see if the Mets had won or not. Even under the best reception conditions, the black-and-white picture featured ghosts, static, waves, and occasional rolling lines.

Baseball viewing improved exponentially when my family finally sprung for a color tv and upgraded our outdoor antenna to one that you could rotate to different positions with a dial on the control box that sat atop the set. It made a huge difference in tuning in distant New York stations like WOR. The picture became much clearer, almost as clear as local stations. It seemed like a miracle.

But then we moved much farther north in Hamden. While there are no mountains to speak of in Connecticut, the northern part of town was quite hilly compared to the flat plains of southern Hamden. The hills had enough elevation to mess with reception, even with the fancy antenna. To make matters worse, local channel 8, the strongest tv signal in the area, broadcast from the top of Mad Mare Mountain in Hamden, which was only about a mile in a straight line from the new house. Channel 8's powerful signal overwhelmed attempts to tune in adjacent channel 9. We were back to watching baseball games with lots of interference.

We lived with that for a couple of years, but then the first cable tv provider in Hamden made it up to our area. Not only did their "massive" lineup of 20 channels include WOR Channel 9, but also SportsChannel New York, which had begun to split coverage of Mets games with WOR. So now watching Mets games meant checking two channels to see who was covering a game, but both channels were received at a quality level that seemed almost miraculous to our eyes.

In those early days of cable tv, the signal was analog. The "remote" looked something like the picture to the right, although our initial 20-channel system only featured 2 lines of buttons. There was a cable that connected the remote to a box on top of the tv, so the use of the remote was limited by the length of that wire. Plus, if you had a puppy in the house, you probably had to pay for a new box more than once until you could convince the little darling to stop chewing through that vulnerable cord.

One benefit of that old analog cable system was that you could still tune channels. One of the worst-kept secrets in the cable world was the Playboy Channel, which was scrambled for those who didn't pay for it, could be unscrambled by tuning the channel. The unscrambled picture was generally black and white and not of the greatest quality, but young (and not so young) boys everywhere knew how to sneak a peek at some undressed women. Ubiquitous internet porn was still several decades in the future.

The Mets were just awful when those games were first broadcast on cable. But the team was under new ownership, and things began to turn around as the early years of the 1980s ticked away. I eventually moved out of Hamden and into an apartment on Wooster Street in New Haven, the Neopolitan pizza capital of the state. I lived with a girlfriend for a while. I thought she was the love of my life, but I wasn't hers. Inevitably, she broke my heart, and we both moved on.

I lived in several different apartments, cycling through an unfortunately brief marriage and a few other girlfriends. I moved several times, east of New Haven on the Connecticut shoreline, settling for a few years in the scenic town of Branford. Wherever I lived, the local cable system had to carry WOR and SportsChannel New York. Sadly, however, the Mets became much less watchable as the 90s progressed.

The baseball strike in 1994 and some terrible Mets teams took a bite out of my love for baseball for a while. Meanwhile, I had met the true love of my life. I didn't watch nearly as many Mets games for a few years, but I still had cable, and I still would watch them from time to time. The efforts of Bobby Valentine, John Olerud, Mike Piazza, and others eventually lured me back to deeper involvement with the Mets.

The 1990s led into the new century. Lisa and I finally decided to move in together. I lived in Branford. She lived in Waterbury. We compromised on Waterbury. Waterbury is an old manufacturing town that constantly struggles to reinvent itself and always fails. In my younger days, I drove through it on occasion, always on the way to other places. I never thought for a second I would ever live there. I still don't love the town, but I still love the girl. Waterbury has Lisa, and, of lesser but still significant importance, the local cable system had Fox Sports Net New York and WPIX Channel 11, which was where the Mets could be found.

Another couple of decades have passed. Digital cable replaced analog. Games became available in HD. The upgrade in quality was almost as dramatic as when cable replaced broadcast so many years earlier. Eventually, I cut the cord and switched to YouTube TV. Today it's Sportsnet NY and local channel 20, which rebroadcasts WPIX's games, for watching the Mets. A Mets broadcast with Gary, Keith, and Ron is still excellent, carrying on a tradition of great broadcasting that goes back to the franchise's origins. Sadly, though, the greed of MLB has led to a growing number of games being taken away from the A-team and given exclusively to the Junior Varsity.

Over the years, Mets fans have adjusted to the sad necessity of losing some of their team's games to Fox and ESPN's various sh*tshow national telecasts. It always felt like both of those outlets expended a ton of energy creating a show for casual fans who really didn't love baseball. I don't know how successful they were in catering to that demographic, but those shows were painful to watch for real fans. The "best" announcers on those networks were terrible enough, but with FOX, if the Mets weren't part of the featured game, their contest often featured an announcing crew that was just plain awful. If I was following the game live, I would inevitably turn off the tv and turn on the radio.

Admittedly, having a national outlet butcher an occasional telecast of your team's games is a first-world problem. When children are still starving in parts of the world, whining about A-Rod's banal pronouncements on a Sunday night ESPN telecast feels petty. I get that, but I still feel frustrated that MLB's constant quest for a few extra dollars in revenue often comes at the cost of their fans.

You would think that MLB should be working hard to make things better for their fans. Baseball has slipped in popularity against other major sports in this country, yet MLB continues to make exclusive deals for broadcasting games with any company willing to wave a few extra dollars at them. And have you noticed the quality of these announcing crews on these upstart broadcasters is even worse than FOX and ESPN?

First, it was Facebook broadcasting exclusive games on their platform. Now it's Apple TV+ and Peacock taking games away from fans. Peacock's games will be exclusively available to the service's subscribers. Apple TV+ will allow non-subscribers to view games for a limited time, but eventually, you'll need to pony up for a subscription to their service if you want to watch. Will Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and other streamers get in on the act, throwing cash at MLB and securing their exclusive chunk of exclusive games? How about Twitter, Instagram, Tinder,  where does it end?

Baseball broadcasting has changed considerably in my lifetime, as outlined above. But for years, the trend was to make it relatively easy and painless to watch most or even all of a team's games. But things are heading in the opposite direction these days. As much as NFL football is a national event, the long baseball season is best served with local broadcasting that knows these teams the best. But Apple TV+ and Peacock and whoever the hell comes next understand that there are a lot of loyal Mets fans out there who want to watch their team play. They'll pay MLB cold, hard cash to attempt to force us to watch their game coverage.

If MLB wants to grow the game and attract new fans, its brain trust might consider limiting the amount of fragmentation in baseball broadcasting. And while they're at it, they might want to try to make things a little more kid-friendly to attract a new generation of fans to the game. Sunday day games should be left for families with kids. A father should be able to buy tickets for his whole family, including young kids, without worrying that ESPN will swoop in at the last moment and move the game to a 7 PM start. Even worse are the playoff games that don't start until 8 PM or even later. All but the oldest kids won't even be able to stay up and watch the whole game on television.

I understand that these late starts become less of a problem as you move westward across the time zones. However, many of the top MLB fan bases are here on the east coast in Boston, New York, Washington, Philadelphia, and Atlanta. MLB needs to honestly assess whether the short-term gains from ESPN and the networks that broadcast the playoffs are worth a future where far fewer eastern kids become big baseball fans. Sadly, my guess is that they'll continue to grab for the cash going forward. But maybe they'll actually surprise me this time.

Be well and take care. Let's go Mets!

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

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