Please Explain: The Initial Launch of the MLB Network
by Scott Long
Are you officially a network if no one is watching? OK, maybe that is a bit harsh, but what a colossal bore the new baseball network has been. Unless you have never seen Ken Burns' wonderful PBS documentary or you are a historian of old game highlights, the only thing the network offers of any quality is its Hot Stove show. Yes, I know that it is January and it will amp up when spring training and the WBC begins, but that is no excuse for not coming out of the gate with more intriguing programming.
I'm aware that baseball doesn't lend itself to the exciting footage that the NFL does, but the clips are only part of the magic that NFL Films has added to its finished products. Steve Sabol has brought humor and an edge to most of the work he's done, with the NFL having enough foresight to know that their work has helped grow their game. While MLB doesn't have a great library of shows to offer to its new network like NFL Films brought to the NFL Network, it is inexcusable, considering the lengthy amount of time it had before launching that the MLB Network didn't create some better documentaries than its weak Prime 9. I wrote over a year ago that the MLB Network should emulate the NFL Network and create its own version of America's Game, the brilliant documentary program covering each Super Bowl champ. Sadly, nothing even close has aired on the MLB Network of America's Game quality.
The one major topic that baseball has which completely trumps football is the place statistics holds to its fans. If you wanted to get many of your hardcore customers to watch the channel in January (and who else would have that much interest, otherwise), there should be a show featuring sabermetrical talk. Even if it was just once a week, why isn't there a round-table show with statistical experts discussing current and historical issues with a sabermetrical slant? And while I'm on the subject of the MLB Network whiffs, where is a fantasy baseball show? This is the other subject that could interest many hardcore fans during the off-season.
I have no beef with the hiring of the on-air talent for the Hot Stove show. Its analysts are head and shoulders above what you see on Baseball Tonight, well except for when you get the occasional Gammons or Kurkjian sighting. The hiring of Tom Verducci and Jon Heyman were really good moves. I know a lot of people around here rip Harold Reynolds, but he is really telegenic and baseball on ESPN has suffered since he left. Where I do think the MLB Network missed out was by not hiring a top-notch host to be the face of the channel like Rich Eisen has provided for the NFL Network. Someone with some edge and a good sense of humor is needed to keep a 24-hour network dedicated to one topic seem fresh and it just isn't there right now. The Big 10 Network has its own problems, but the hiring of Dave Revsine from ESPN was a wise move to be their version of Eisen.
I'm sure when the actual season starts I will look past some of these issues, as having a channel completely dedicated to baseball, featuring highlights and live look-ins will camouflage a lot of problems. I'm just at a loss of why the channel decided to kick off in January 2009, instead of waiting at least until pitchers and catchers show up. I'm even more disappointed in the pathetic quality of its original documentaries.
If you're going to have your own network, you need to invest more in original programming. My first move to improve the network would be to hire some of the top people away from NFL Films and let them have the freedom to do what they need to create quality documentary programming. The other move I would make would be to give Baseball Prospectus its own show, which would give the network some edge and at the same time take away the idea that the MLB Network is just a mouthpiece for the owners. (I realize that probably won't happen, but a good compromise would be to hire a couple of the guys from BP to bring some much needed contrarian analysis.)
I'm happy that the MLB Network exists, but it is off to a pretty dismal beginning.