Such innovations are a positive sign for viewers of a network that has been caught in the crosshairs of a changing media landscape.
Before Marquee Sports Network arrived on the scene, NBC Sports Chicago hadn’t had a competing regional sports network since Fox Sports Net Chicago shut down in 2006. It wasn’t much of a competition, though. In 2004, FSN Chicago lost the Blackhawks, Bulls, Cubs and White Sox to Comcast SportsNet Chicago (the precursor to NBCSCH) and aired programming of little interest to Chicago fans.
But the Cubs are now on Marquee, which has been bent on bringing innovations to its broadcasts, such as camera technology and wind tracking. You might think that NBCSCH would be paying close attention to its RSN competitor, particularly during baseball season, but that’s not the network’s tack.
“I’ll watch it occasionally,” said Kevin Cross, NBCSCH’s senior vice president and general manager. “This is really no knock on anyone else. I believe very strongly that if you take care of the things that are important to you internally, the outcome of your competition will take care of itself.”
Cross always is looking to innovate for his viewers, and he and Greg Bowman, executive producer of live events, devised a pitch-tracking graphic that’s the first of its kind on baseball broadcasts and incorporated it into Sox home games about a month ago.
The graphic displays the pitch type in real time on the virtual overlay of the strike zone, in addition to location and speed. The latter two elements already had been shown on broadcasts, but combined with the type, viewers get a better picture of each pitch.
“We want to focus a lot of our attention on that duel between the pitcher and the batter,” Cross said. “We want to make sure that the viewer has everything they need to understand that moment. One of the things that has always been important to me is the pitch type.”
Cross and Bowman discussed the concept in one of their daily morning calls, and Bowman designed a mockup. They presented their idea to MLB, which provides broadcasts with its Pitchcast system, a network of cameras in every ballpark that tracks the speed, angle and spin rate of every pitch.
“MLB said, ‘Well, no one’s asked us that,’ ” Cross said. “So they came back with a couple of mockups, and then we went with it. MLB can offer it to anyone. It’s not like we put a trademark or patent on it. MLB created it on our behalf, but we want to make it available to anyone across broadcasting.”
The graphic is clear and unobtrusive. On-screen pitch tracking has come a long way from its previous iteration, which was on the side of the screen and didn’t provide the type. And it works for younger viewers who are accustomed to similar graphics in baseball video games.
NBCSCH can’t replicate the graphic for road games because it’s at the mercy of the world feed delivered by the home team’s broadcast. For those games, NBCSCH worked with MLB to create a drop-down box in the scorebug for the pitch type.
Such innovations are a positive sign for viewers of a network that has been caught in the crosshairs of a changing media landscape. Despite parent company NBCUniversal’s belt-tightening, consolidating and restructuring companywide, NBCSCH is plugging along as best it can with fewer resources.
But the question remains if the network will resume producing original TV programming outside of its game coverage, such as canceled shows “SportsTalk Live” and “Baseball Night in Chicago.” Cross said the network has emphasized podcasting and creating content for its digital platforms, though he acknowledged linear TV is still king.
“We’re exploring it, but I’ve always said, ‘Let’s make sure we don’t do pure vanity projects,’ ” Cross said. “We have to make sure that we’re doing it because it’s a demand by our viewers. Based upon everything we’ve seen, the viewer wants to be reached on multiple platforms.
“What they typically want is when the game is on, they want to stream it if they’re out and about, and they want to watch the pre- and postgame and the game if they’re in front of their TV at home.”
NBCSCH is well-positioned as sports media expands into streaming. It’s available on AT&T TV, fuboTV, Hulu + Live TV and YouTube TV. (Marquee isn’t available on the latter two.) But Cross, who will add the titles of president and general manager of NBC 5 and Telemundo Chicago on June 1, keeps his focus on his audience.
“The best thing for me is to focus the most on what does the fan want,” he said. “The industry is fluid. We’re in this interesting moment where technology and people’s interests are all coming together. But at the end, there will always be sports fans, and they’ll always want to know where can I find my local game. So we’ll always be there for them in that regard.”
- The Cubs-Cardinals game at 6 p.m. Saturday is part of Fox’ season debut of “Baseball Night in America.” The network’s top crew of Joe Buck, John Smoltz and Ken Rosenthal will have the call. The series finale will air on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” at 6 p.m. Cubs TV voice Jon Sciambi will call the game for ESPN Radio, but that broadcast won’t air on ESPN 1000.
- The White Sox will have a national audience Monday, when ESPN airs their home game against the Cardinals at 7 p.m. Karl Ravech, Eduardo Perez and Tim Kurkjian will have the call. The broadcast will be available in the Chicago market. NBC Sports Chicago also will air the game.