TBS, under contract to Major League Baseball through 2021 to carry a Sunday afternoon game and postseason coverage, had more people watching the National League Championship Series than any postseason series in its history.
They got a 4.8 rating across the entire country for the series -- that's a huge rating for a baseball playoff series on cable. Wednesday night's Game 4 averaged 7.9 million total viewers and a 5.0 rating, the highest rating for any cable network for that night (based on metered markets). These numbers are up 99 percent (total viewers) and 86 percent in household rating over TBS' ALCS Game 4 last year. Part of that, of course, is the New York and Chicago markets compared to the home markets for 2014 -- Kansas City and Baltimore. The game drew an 18.9 rating in Chicago and an 18.8 rating in New York.
Unfortunately, these huge audiences were "treated" to some of the worst baseball television I have ever seen.
The main announcing crew of Ernie Johnson, Ron Darling and Cal Ripken Jr. is, at best, boring. As I've written before, Johnson is a fine studio host for TBS' NBA coverage. But that does not necessarily translate into competent baseball play-by-play. Those are two very different things. Johnson's voice sounds like he has cotton stuffed in his cheeks, his cadence isn't baseball-friendly and his asides, while praised by the Tribune's Teddy Greenstein, seem forced:
Johnson pointed out Steven Matz's resemblance to Rory McIlroy. After Cal Ripken asked, "Can Rory throw 96 (mph)?" Johnson slyly replied: "Can Matz putt?"
Greenstein seemed to like that sort of thing. I think it's yawn-inducing. Ripken adds little to the broadcast and it seems as if TBS puts him in the booth simply because he's a "name." Darling, at least, does this job on an everyday basis on SNY, the Mets' cable network. Some accused him of being a "homer" for the Mets, but in the two games I watched (Games 1 and 2) I didn't find that. Greenstein also wrote about Darling:
The foreshadowing of Lucas Duda's three-run blast by Darling, who had pointed out that Duda "put on a display" in batting practice.
That's luck, in my opinion. I can't tell you how many times I have seen hitters "put on a display" during BP, then go 0-for-4.
Part of the announcer problem is that there's never, ever, ever any reason to put three announcers in a baseball booth. There simply isn't enough time for that many people to make cogent remarks about the game they're doing. Add to that two field reporters and that makes five voices competing for air time. In this case, more is definitely not better.
Then there's TBS' widely-reviled K Zone box, shown here:
The K Zone on this graphic isn't why I'm calling it to your attention, though it was pretty far off for the entire postseason. Look at the top of the box, where it shows the number of pitches thrown to the current hitter. Interesting, I suppose, but mostly irrelevant. Most hitters complete their at-bat within three or four pitches and if an at-bat goes much longer than that, the announcers will (presumably) mention that. It's a waste of space.
What's worse is the pitch count showing on the bottom of the scorebox -- and nowhere else. Pitch counts have become quite important in recent years and every other channel that has carried Cubs games in 2015 shows it as part of their main scorebox.
CSN Chicago does it that way:
So does WGN:
Even the other two national networks do it that way. ESPN:
Here's the reason that doing it the way everyone except TBS does it is better. While you are watching the game, your eye can easily glance at the upper left of the screen to see the score, situation and pitch count. This is exactly what you'd do if you were at a ballpark watching a game in person -- your eye can quickly scan to wherever the scoreboard(s) are in the park you're at and see this information. TV channels generally do a good job of replicating this, though my TV-director training tells me that I wouldn't do it the way ESPN and Fox do it. The lower left or lower right aren't the places the eye naturally fall when you are watching baseball, especially the pitcher-batter shot, where the pitcher is usually screen left and the ball is seen pitched from the upper portion of the screen. You've got to do "extra" work to find the scorebox on Fox or ESPN, but at least the pitch count is there all the time.
Not so with TBS, where you only see the pitch count on the center-field pitcher-batter shot when the K Zone is shown on the right side of the screen -- and again, this is forcing you the viewer to divide your attention if you want to see the count, outs, baserunners, etc. and the pitch count at the same time. It winds up being distracting instead of helpful.
Then there's the mediocre-to-poor camerawork, epitomized in this shot:
Why, that ball's going to be an upper-deck home run! It even fooled good ol' Ernie Johnson, whose call (which obviously you can't hear) sounded like Wilmer Flores' ball was headed for the upper reaches of Citi Field.
Nope. Routine fly ball caught by Kyle Schwarber, not even near the warning track.
This is likely because they've hired inexperienced camera crews, or crews that haven't been properly trained. We're used to watching Cubs games here, where the crews have been trained to follow the outfielders, rather than the fly balls soaring into the sky. The reason for TV cameras not to follow the flight of the ball is the same reason you often hear people sitting behind the plate at a ballpark cheer every fly ball like it's a home run. It's an optical illusion, and local camera crews almost always do a better job than national crews simply because they do more games.
Instead of hiring freelance camera people and putting crews together at the last moment, TBS ought to hire out the local crews who do games in the cities where they are doing playoff games. Trio Video, who does 100+ baseball games in Chicago every year, could certainly handle a few postseason games in October, even though they're also doing NHL and NBA games this time of year. They cover all three sports for a while in April, so they could certainly do it for a couple of weeks in October.
At least the network got rid of Dick Stockton for their Division Series coverage. Between his 1970s-style calls and mispronouncing names, he was an embarrassment.
The bottom line is that we are stuck with TBS for a minimum of six more years of postseason coverage. Since all of us hope the Cubs are now good enough to make sustained postseason runs, we're likely going to have TBS doing some of their games every October. The least they could do is put together a broadcast worthy of a national audience.