As Game 1 of the NLCS got underway on Saturday night, my TV wasn’t turned to Fox for the traditional broadcast, called by Joe Buck, Harold Reynolds, and Tom Verducci. Instead, it was turned to Fox Sports 1, for a special broadcast of the game powered by Just A Bit Outside (or JABO), Fox’s baseball portal. The way this presentation worked was simple: instead of Buck, Reynolds, and Verducci going on and on about narratives, a panel of more sabermetrically-inclined analysts would chat about the game.
At first, the broadcast seemed a bit awkward and clunky. Of the five man panel, host Kevin Burkhardt had the most TV experience. San Diego Padres manager Bud Black and Fox baseball editor Rob Neyer were relative neophytes in the televised analysis department. Gabe Kapler and C.J. Nitkowski are fixtures on Fox’s baseball coverage, but neither has been in the studio for a tremendously long time. Needless to say, it took an inning or two for the show to get off the ground. There were some moments of uncomfortable silence and rough attempts at shoehorning advanced statistics into the game situation.
But once the panel started getting accustomed to one another, the show began to take off. The banter seemed authentic and not forced at all. The analysis was informative, original, and quite frankly, refreshing. In my opinion, the star of the show was Black, who proved himself to be funny, intelligent, and insightful. If he ever loses his job as Padres manager and wants to sit out for a year or two before getting back into the game (a la Terry Francona), he’ll thrive with a TV job. At this point, you also know what you’re getting out of Burkhardt, Nitkowski, and Kapler, and the trio thrived while bouncing ideas off of each other. Neyer did well, but I’m not sure that live analysis of a three-plus hour game is his forte. The other panelists generally had more insight and were more well-spoken, but those are factors that can be improved with more experience on television.
The negatives of the broadcast weren’t necessarily glaring, but they were still there. As I mentioned earlier, various statistics seemed to get forced into the discussion early on, and while they were accurate and relevant, their use at the time seemed out of place. The main complaint early on by fans was the presence of a split screen, and while the game telecast was in the larger box, there was plenty of empty space on the screen and the second box often just showed the panel watching the game. As the game went on, the split screen was used less in favor of a full screen telecast of the game with the panel’s commentary over top of it, a major improvement.
Too often during broadcasts, we see intelligent discourse and analysis tabled in favor of beating narratives to death. Managers generally aren’t questioned, decisions aren’t explained in-depth, and broadcasters focus on describing *what* happened, not *how* or *why* something happened. The JABO telecast on Saturday night explained the how and why of the game, and it was a tremendously entertaining experience. And while the main Fox broadcast drew 25 times the viewers as the JABO broadcast (a 3.5 rating compared to just a .14), the JABO broadcast was still a rousing success for Fox Sports 1. This kind of discourse during live games is a huge step in the right direction for major networks in the vein of ESPN’s BCS Megacast, and I wouldn’t complain about even more second screen broadcasts going forward for multiple sports.