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TBS takes its shots

Ratings high for first round, but critics have field day

Posted: Wednesday October 10, 2007 1:40PM; Updated: Thursday October 11, 2007 6:28PM
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Tony Gwynn, Chip Caray
Chip Caray, right, could have set up partners Tony Gwynn, left, and Bob Brenly better in the first round.
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The Chicago Tribune requested a change in personnel (MEMO TO TBS: BRING ON BARKLEY). The New York Daily News suggested a new acronym (TBS: TOTALLY BLAND SNOOZFEST). The reviews from the Los Angeles Times (FRANKLY, TBS WHIFFS BY USING THOMAS) and New York Times (AN ERROR-PLAGUED GAME, BUT FROM THE BROADCAST BOOTH) were equally telling.

If you were looking for a headline to sum up the critical take on TBS's coverage of MLB's Division Series, it would look something like this: NETWORK GETS NUKED BY CRITICS.

"Everyone is certainly welcome to their opinion," Turner Sports executive producer Jeff Behnke said on Tuesday. "Have there been some things across the board that we need to look at? Of course. Overall, we are proud. I'm not going to respond to every criticism that is out there."

That's probably a smart move since it would take Behnke a couple of days to get through all the copy. Fifteen months after it paid millions for the rights to all four Division Series and for one of the League Championship Series for the next seven seasons, the network debuted its coverage without the benefit of having a full season to work out the kinks. The result was a bumpy first week.

Still, viewers came out in huge numbers, even with three of the four series ending in a sweeps. TBS (which is owned by the same parent company, Time Warner Inc., as SI) averaged 5.7 million viewers for the Division Series, up 26 percent from Fox, ESPN and ESPN2's coverage the previous year, according to the network. (It's worth noting that ESPN was required to make games available for local over-the-air coverage; TBS' deal does not require the same provision.) The games drew a 3.8 rating (up 18 percent from '06) and made sizeable gains in key demographics such as adults 18-34 and adults 18-49. "It resonated, it clicked and it connected," said Behnke.

The same cannot be said of some of his announcer pairings. Since, unlike Fox and ESPN, TBS does not have a slice of the national regular-season pie, it has no preset broadcaster combos upon which to draw. Lead play-by-play man Chip Caray and analysts Bob Brenly and Tony Gwynn were uneven at best as a group. As far as Caray's singular performance was concerned, well, at least he didn't curse on the air. The broadcaster was excoriated in a column this week by New York Times reporter Richard Sandomir, the most powerful sports media critic by virtue of reputation and his paper's reach. Sandomir cited a litany of offenses, from factual inaccuracies to grand pronouncements to "an annoying air of certitude."

For example, during Game 2 of the Indians-Yankees series, Caray declared that the visiting Yankees had the winning run at second in the top of the ninth. As disturbing was Caray's obsession with bug puns ("Remember guys, the Nats over in the National League caused some trouble too in the final week.") Then there was his propensity to talk incessantly, which was particularly troubling since neither Brenly nor Gwynn are the type of analysts to boom out opinions in the manner of John Madden. Gwynn, an eight-time batting champion, knows as much about hitting as anybody and has a passion for baseball, but he doesn't possess a big voice or a forceful on-air manner. He needs someone to draw him out as opposed to stealing his airtime.

Brenly probably had the best series of the trio. He rewarded viewers at the start of Game 4 when he said that extra velocity for a sinkerballer such as New York's Chien-Ming Wang was not a good thing. "That's when [the pitch] tends to straighten out," said Brenly, an observation that came exactly six seconds prior to Grady Sizemore smacking a home run off Wang to lead off the game. Asked about his top announcing team, Behnke gave them high marks. "For a group of three guys that had never worked together, we were very happy with their camaraderie, conversation and presentation of the information," he said.

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