Five Years In and Still Flawed: Critiquing MLB Network, Part Two

MLB Network logo

This is the second part of my series on MLB Network, what with the network being approximately five years into existence. Part One examined the talent employed by MLB Network. Part Two will look at MLB Network’s programming.

The Programming

For years if you wanted to watch highlights from around MLB and also be provided with stats, info, and analysis, you need only tune to ESPN to watch Baseball Tonight, a program that came on the air in 1990. It’s hard to be viewed too unfavorably when you’re the only game in town, but over time (at least in my memory) one of ESPN’s many flaws became more and more apparent: they provided significantly more coverage for the big-market teams (Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, and even the LA teams to an extent) than the rest of the league. Moreover, as the first decade of this millenium came to a close, ESPN’s utter infatuation with the National Football League and their tremendously large revenue numbers grew with each passing moment (as did their love of the “Embrace Debate” culture) and baseball along with hockey, soccer, and everything else got pushed to the wayside. ESPN hasn’t televised playoff baseball since 2006 and over the years their regular schedule of live MLB broadcasts decreased from five to three. The time had come for someone to fill the void and MLB Network stepped right in with their launch on January 1, 2009. As I alluded to before, expectations were high, and one expected a counter to “Baseball Tonight.” Enter two programs; MLB Tonight (which quite often starts at 3 in the afternoon on the west coast) and Quick Pitch.

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It takes awhile for any network to get itself off the ground, so I won’t criticize MLB Network for how it was in its infancy. Once carriage and distribution increased and word spread, their potential increased. Today the network is able to tout, “live game coverage [that] includes approximately 150 regular season games, two exclusive League Division Series game telecasts, more than 150 Spring Training games, and other special event game telecasts.” That’s a fantastic load of live games. It really is. I’m genuinely giving MLB Network a big thumbs up for that. I’m an MLB.TV subscriber, but most people are not and the ability to flip on MLB Network and watch at least one live baseball game – in whole – almost every single day (or at least three days a week) is really awesome. There are three other MLB Network programs that come to mind that I want to make sure I trumpet

Quick Pitch

MLB Network's Quick Pitch

MLB Network’s nightly highlights show does just that — highlights. Very brief stats and info, and no analysis. And that’s fine. Quick Pitch is one of the more reliable things in my life. If I want to know what happened around the game of baseball on any given night, all I’ve gotta do is flip on Quick Pitch and I can get a taste of every game with a few stats to cap it off.

Earlier I may or may not have taken some shots at Alanna Rizzo and Heidi Watney. I do not know either of them personally, and it’s been a little while since Ms. Rizzo has done Quick Pitch, so I’ll deal with Ms. Watney. I do think she’s developed into an above average talent for the role that she’s in and I could very much be wrong about all this, but I’m left feeling like Ms. Rizzo and Ms. Watney got to their positions on Quick Pitch for no reason other than their looks. This is why I found it so refreshing when Mr. Fareed was hosting Quick Pitch and why now I enjoy Scott Braun. I can focus on the stories, on the games, and on the highlights. I don’t have exact figures, but I’d guess MLB Network’s demographics skew male and that MLB Network execs figured that’s a good reason to put attractive women on camera. What do I want from a female sportscaster or journalist? The same thing I want from any sportscaster or journalist. Talent, skill, and professionalism. If they happen to look great, so be it. Doris Burke and Rebecca Lowe are prime examples, and would throw Sage Steele in there as well.  But my issues with the attractive-female-Quick Pitch-host aside, I would have only one suggestion for the show and that would be to consider moving more toward a format seen on the “Premier League Review Show” or on “Match of the Day,” both on NBCSN. Minimal analysis, minimal stats and info, and almost all highlights include the calls of the broadcasters at the time, not someone in studio on the network the program is being aired. Simply plenty of unfiltered highlights of sports action, one game after another. That said, I put Quick Pitch in this category for a reason; I like it, and I really do like it a lot — even with Heidi Watney

Baseball’s Seasons

You know what I know pretty well? Major League Baseball since about 2000ish. My memory can get a little fuzzy at times – no one is perfect – but I can remember quite a lot of Major League Baseball over the last 15 years. You know what I don’t know well? MLB in 1961. Or 1969. Or 1973. Or 1978. Or 1984. You get the idea. Baseball’s Seasons does a fantastic job of putting together great old footage and interviews with the best players from that season, intertwined with subtle narration. For those of us who love baseball, love learning about baseball, and love learning about the history of baseball, these programs are top class.

Prime 9

MLB Network Prime Nine

Prime 9, “The countdown show that counts down the very best in baseball.” The rest of the introduction goes something like, “Why nine? Nine players, nine innings…Prime 9.” The Prime 9 programs are fun and slightly quirky and remind you in a way of what is great about “Baseball’s Seasons.” In much the same way as “Baseball’s Seasons,” they string together highlights with interviews and just enough narration, allowing the viewer at home to re-live great stories of the game like “could-have-beens” and “one-sided trades.” It can be fun to follow along with the program and predict what will be next in the countdown and in what order you would rank these items yourself. Prime 9 — a solid program.

Honorable Mentions

  • “30 Clubs in 30 Days” – an hour-long program that airs during Spring Training and previews the upcoming season for a given team. A great way to get refreshed with the moves in the offseason as well as expectations and predictions.
  • Plays of the Week/Plays of the Month – because shows that highlight great plays are guaranteed to produce content whose floor is average and whose ceiling is great.
  • And I’d be remiss to not mention their “MLB Network Showcase” games which usually feature an average or better pxp/analyst duo, a phenomenal graphics package, and everything else being just fine.

You may be sitting here thinking, “Wait, Dylan, I thought you said you had a problem with MLB Network’s programming?” Yes, yes I do.

Intentional Talk

I’ve never thought much of Chris Rose. He always seemed a little over the top. Someone once said, “You can tell a lot about a man by his hair.” And if no one has ever said that, then I just did.

Chris Rose hair

Yeah I can’t trust you. But if he’d stayed in the studio host role — fine, I could accept that. I don’t have to like a studio host for them to be good, they just have to be able to moderate a few other voices and minds and host a proper dialogue and conversation. Alas, Chris Rose could not satisfy this. He had to team up with another man with terrible hair who cannot be trusted.

This guy? Really? You gave this guy a talk show?

This guy? Really? You gave this guy a talk show?

I’m never going to be able to hear the phrase “got him” properly again. Robert Seidman of Zap2It, an apparent Intentional Talk apologist – it’s okay Robert, apparently we’re all apologists for something these days – will himself admit that Kevin Millar is a jackass. In 2011, Seidman informed us that during a week in September of that year, the most watched episode averaged 71,000 viewers. On January 3, 2014, Seidman notes that Intentional Talk drew a 0.0 rating among Adults 18-49 and ranked last among the sports programming he selected to evaluate for that day. The next broadcast on Monday, January 6? Another 0.0 among Adults 18-49. I don’t know about you, but when I watch sports programming that isn’t a live game, I want to learn something. I want to see engaging and interesting conversation, great stories, good reporting. I want to learn about new and upcoming players, guys who are struggling who you would thought would be doing good as well as cinderella stories. There are 30 teams in Major League Baseball, each with 25 men on their roster, at least five guys on their coaching staff and a whole host of players in the minor leagues. I could fill hours upon hours with original content and storylines, and yet we have these two fools — acting like fools. This needs to be cancelled.

Update: So that whole paragraph detailing how no one watches “Intentional Talk,” Kevin Millar is a jackass, and the show needs to be cancelled? Here’s where I eat my crow; I hadn’t ever watched a full episode of the program. I recently recorded and watched the episode from Monday, June 23, which aired from 5-6 PM ET and averaged 92,000 viewers. Judging by the prior paragraph, my expectations for “Intentional Talk” were very low going in, but here’s what I noticed while watching:

  • The screen is very busy the whole time — fairly Fox Sports Live-esque with the “L bar,” if you will. After thinking about it however, there’s really only one thing I’d get rid of and that is the “Chatter” ticker that scrolls through viewers’ tweets into the show. It’s one of my biggest pet peeves — I do not care at all what other people watching the show are thinking. Otherwise, the bar on the left side of the screen provides relevant and interesting information that supplements the topic of discussion. I like it.
  • Just like a lot of things that happen at MLB Network, their set is gigantic. I’m of the impression that one of the two is quite often in Los Angeles so they do the show via satellite and this problem does not arise, but man, that set is unnecessarily large. Add in the gfx package, transitions and sound effects and it really feels like this program occurs within a pinball machine. In that regard, there were times when I felt like I wasn’t on enough ecstasy to fully embrace this show.
  • To add to the whole “pinball machine” feel, the pace of the program was very quick. It almost felt like Rose and Millar were talking aggressively, and with the music playing constantly, there was a fairly intense feel about the whole experience.
  • Millar is just as much of an idiot as I thought he was, but he is self-deprecating and that goes a long way toward removing any ill effects of his lack of intelligence. Furthermore, for a guy who quite obviously isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, Millar is great when it comes to providing insight into different plays and moments throughout baseball. For example, Rose and Millar discussed Bob Melvin’s recent comments about batters’ backswings after his catcher Derek Norris had to be removed from the game following a backswing. Millar made a great point about how many catchers like to scoot forward when catching sinker/slider pitchers, and maybe they just need to scoot back a half-step.

All in all, it’s obviously not perfect, but I was incredibly pleased for one reason in particular; Intentional Talk is an hour-long program that discusses everything about Major League Baseball. Topics include what teams and players are and are not performing well, and stories that are in the headlines as well as stories that ought to be discussed more. I’m not sure I know of another talk show style program where the commentators are discussing Khris Davis, J.D. Martinez, and showing highlights from minor league games in Toledo. Yes, Millar’s a little slow, but he owns it, and he provides insight and perspective on baseball that can be seriously lacking from many of the employees at MLB Network. I may honestly watch this program again.

High Heat with Christopher Russo

STOP YELLING AND PUT YOUR HANDS DOWN, BRO.

STOP YELLING AND PUT YOUR HANDS DOWN, BRO.

I tried, guys. I really did. My intention with this was to give my thoughts on the network’s programming, but going in I was already biased against two programs — Intentional Talk and High Heat. I’ve already mentioned how I overcame my initial expectations of IT to find it was not too bad. High Heat had a lot of things going against it — namely it’s host. Maybe I wasn’t going to have the same appreciation for him because I didn’t grow up with Francesa and Russo, but his voice just drives me nuts. It’s like fingernails on a chalkboard. But this morning, Wednesday, June 9, I decided I would give High Heat a try. I had my breakfast and was sipping my coffee and suddenly this 54-year old man is yelling and waving his hands and he’s not gonna stop talking and I think he’s on crack and AH STOP. I just couldn’t take it anymore. You know how I initially said Intentional Talk had to go? I was wrong. Give them two hours, Russo has got to go. Trouble is, it may not be going away, as Russo has significantly outdrawn his former partner, whose show is now syndicated on FS1/FS2. In the week of 6/23-6/29, High Heat’s viewership ranged from 21,000 viewers (6/24, 1-2 pm ET) to 79,000 viewers (6/25, 1-2 pm ET).

MLB Tonight

MLB-Tonight logo

Near the outset, I mentioned MLB Network’s answers to Baseball Tonight. One of them falls in the “positive” category, that being Quick Pitch. The other, however, is MLB Tonight, a program which as I said before, often starts at 3 PM on the West Coast and sometimes earlier. To provide some perspective on the show’s ratings, it drew a 0.2 and an average of 228,000 viewers in the “MLB Tonight Postgame” in the Friday, June 27 edition which aired from 9:55 PM ET to 11:15 PM ET. Also, MLB Tonight saw a 30% ratings increase in the 2nd quarter of 2014 over the 1st quarter.

MLB Tonight illustrates a problem; not all highlight shows are created equal, and this one’s downfall comes in its talent. Part one of this series highlighted many of the asinine things said during the course of the show, and frankly anytime there is a Twitter account created solely to tweet out dumb things said on your show, you may have a problem.

Here’s what I want from my ideal baseball highlights show: thorough highlights from every single game that day that bring me the general story as well as some important details, players who are able to put those highlights into context and provide insight into what happened, and the latest news and information — along with intelligent minds to dissect and discuss said news and information. I want to know everything that is happening in Major League Baseball, I want to learn about it from the most intelligent and interesting voices possible, and I want to come away having learned something/not having to go online and find out what else happened in baseball that day, knowing there were other stories not covered (looking at you, Baseball Tonight, and your long standing big money/big market bias). Because of their goofy, ridiculous, and often unintelligent analysts, MLB Tonight fails to achieve this objective. That said, it is so rare that the WWL chooses to air Baseball Tonight consistently, in the same time slot and on the same network, to the point that if I want to watch a baseball highlights show, it’s gotta be MLB Tonight, albeit begrudgingly.

Bleacher Features

MLB Network Bleacher Features

MLB Network has something they call “Bleacher Features” in which they show baseball movies. I like the idea, but there’s a problem; most sports movies are bad. Baseball is not immune to this problem. I will willingly admit that I have not seen “Bull Durham”, “Field of Dreams”, or “A League of Their Own” but these are widely regarded to be among the all-time greats. I have seen “42,” “Moneyball,” “Major League,” the remake of “Bad News Bears,” and a couple others that could probably be re-aired, though that Bad News Bears remake really wasn’t very good. The rest? Again, most all of them are bad films. Rookie of the Year? Little Big League? Angels in the Outfield? Mr.3000? Hell, even Fever Pitch was bad. Most sports movies are bad, and most baseball movies are bad. I have a solution to this problem, but it may not be cheap.

ESPN has proven time and again that their 30 for 30 series is amazing. As sports fans, we tune-in in great numbers, we buy the DVDs and we download to watch later. Heck, when sports fans are debating which documentaries in the series are the best or their favorite, you know you’ve got something good on your hands. This is where the other sports networks need to step up. There’s almost an infinite number of great baseball stories that could be made in to compelling, documentary style films — or at the very least they would be compelling to baseball fans. That’s your target audience, remember? Baseball fans.

Part One of this series talked about MLB Network’s talent, and as much as this examines the programming on the network, I’m left feeling like their on-air personalities are the crux of the issue. If MLB Network starts hiring people who are more insightful and articulate and stops trying to be “exciting” “fast-paced” and “cool,” they’ll be a lot better off. I’ll continue to keep an eye on the channel and let you know as more topics of discussion arise, but for now I’m glad it exists. I’m glad there’s a network I can turn on that is dedicated to baseball. However, I’m still left feeling like things could be so much better.

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About Dylan Jenkins

I'm a proud Seattlite currently living in Queens, NY. Outside of sports, I enjoy crime dramas - specifically police procedurals - as well as a wide range of music, everything from Top 40 to Iron & Wine, Bob Dylan & Rogue Wave. I am a cat person, which is to say I'm a human who enjoys felines. I have a tremendous sweet tooth that isn't very discerning, and I refuse to observe a number of unwritten social rules.
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One Response to Five Years In and Still Flawed: Critiquing MLB Network, Part Two

  1. arnie4565 says:

    High Heat with Christopher Russo is an utter embarrassment. Just the promos for this show makes me embarrassed to have my tv tuned in to the network with the obnoxiously loud yelling when my family is in the room. As a matter of fact, I change the channel as soon as he opens his piehole. The loud, argumentative nature of Russo is a turn-off to us fans who are tired of the back and forths these Bronx-like personalities bring to the table. It’s like sitting next to a couple of drunks at a chicken wing restaurant who seem to think the loudest comment makes it the correct comment. Just a total, obnoxious failure of a concept.

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