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SPORTS MEDIA

So many games, so little time

Local sportscasts drastically cut

By the time anchor Frances Rivera took the Channel 7 newscast back from sports reporter/anchor Larry Ridley Wednesday night, after the Celtics-Rockets highlights and the sights of spring training, just 2 minutes 45 seconds had elapsed. Barely a glimpse of sports in a newscast devoted primarily to babies born in gas stations and car crashes. Barely a nod to the section of the news that -- it might be assumed -- would interest this region more than any other.

But not anymore, it seems.

Back before ESPN, before the Internet, before the 24-hour news cycle overwhelmed everything sports-related, local news was the source. The only source. Not only were there no highlight shows, but not all of the Boston area teams' games were on TV. So the news was often the only way to see the Red Sox or Celtics or Bruins.

And it was all wrapped up in a neat 7- to 7 1/2-minute package in a newscast that lasted an hour, so important that the sports segments were staggered so a viewer could catch them on all three channels. No longer. Now it's 3 minutes or 3 1/2 minutes or even less.

"Does it exist anymore?" asked Frank Shorr, the sports producer at Channel 7 from 1980-2001. "Does anybody watch it?"

Despite the touch of levity, Shorr, now an assistant professor at Boston University's College of Communication, touched on the serious. With the proliferation of highlight shows and websites, the nightly local sportscast has become less important in finding scores and results and, really, anything else. It has become almost an afterthought, both in the newscast itself and for a viewership sated on the immediacy of information. And, in many ways, it all comes back to those three minutes.

"When there's a big story, they let us go," said Mike Lynch, sports anchor at Channel 5 since 1985. "We're still cranking it out. It's just the portions are smaller. We're on a little bit of a sports diet. You just try to make it the best three minutes in town.

"It's hard to go in-depth with a story that's a minute and a half. That's the attention span of all the viewers today. They want their information, they want it fast. It's almost called nanocasting now. Everything is compressed into a small amount of time. But the emphasis and the importance of a sportscast hasn't changed."

Except, on that last point, there's not quite universal agreement.

"It's just not on anybody's priority list anymore," Shorr said. "It's not on the news director's priority list. It's not on the viewers' priority list. My students, they don't even know who they are, the Mike Lynches and the Bob Lobels and the Joe Amorosinos. There are just too many places they can get their information in too timely a fashion to make it relevant to the lives of people interested in sports news. Unless something changes, that's just the way it is."

Ranks reduced
Bob Lobel (Channel 4) and John Dennis (Channel 7, now WEEI) and Lynch were the faces of their departments, reporters who fought each other daily for scoops. Behind them were five or six other reporters, all vying for time on screen. It's a lot, sure, but with seven minutes a night, it was possible to fit them all in. And fit them all in with some unique stories, with reporting not found anywhere else.

Now they're down to three or four, more than enough to fill the dwindling minutes and dwindling necessity.

"It's a whole different world," said Jim Thistle, formerly the news director or president at Channels 4, 5, and 7 and now chairman of the journalism department at BU. "It's a breaking-news, headline service now. It's not in-depth, this is what you need to know. I'm not criticizing necessarily, but the whole audience has changed."

Though a few national events or spectacular highlights might make those three-minute segments, generally the sportscast has been forced to focus closely on the region. That means a heavy dose of Patriots and Red Sox -- Channel 4 senior sports producer Jackie Connally acknowledges there are nights the station won't show Bruins or Celtics highlights based on the interest level -- with perhaps a shot of a local high school or college team mixed in. It's what, they hope, their viewers can't get on ESPN.

But, in truth, there is no way to compete. "SportsCenter" airs an hour of dunks and slap shots and touchdown passes. The local guys have three minutes.

"We get complaints a lot saying, 'Why don't they give you more time?' " Lynch said. "I take orders. I would love to have more time."

Thistle thinks the business has bottomed out, that sports can't survive with any less than it has. Except, a few words later, he's back to argue that while it might not be getting worse, it's not necessarily getting better.

"They've grudgingly cut back, realizing that audience that hung on their every word for every score is just gone," he said. "And it's not coming back."

Resentment grows
When the hourlong newscast at 6 gave way to the three sectioned broadcasts, at 5, 5:30, and 6, that was the harbinger of the decline of the sportscast. That was when the seven minutes gave way to three. That was when it all changed. And, for those in the business, it was hardly a pleasant change.

"Quite frankly, there were a lot of sports guys who were really angry, and still are," Thistle said. "They're still not over that we used to have time to breathe and now everything we do has to be miniaturized."

There are solutions out there, if you're among those who think there's a problem. Beefing up an online presence, putting coverage on the web, or even Shorr's radical idea -- a half-hour all-sports show every night, going up against the popular "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN.

But most don't think there's an issue. For the consumer of sports information, there are so many platforms and avenues that it's hard not to be satisfied. For the news director, sports doesn't seem to bring in viewers to a newscast, so there would be no reason to expand, especially with hours-old news often leading the coverage.

So now it's about unique angles, about access, about attempting differentiation in an increasingly homogenized medium -- based on time and not on talent.

"Where is TV news going?" Thistle asked. "Where is it now? Everything points to shorter stories, breaking news, but an aversion to anything that requires serious attention on the part of the viewer. It's become video wallpaper. That's why everyone is devoting more and more time to their online and their websites. People can go find out more if they want to."

But, Connally cautions, it could always be worse. Boston is in a better position than many other markets. Because of the ravenous demand for Red Sox and Patriots news -- stories that have spilled over from the sportscast to sometimes lead the news -- the market isn't in danger of something so drastic as losing its sports entirely.

Like the CBS station in Kansas City, where there is no sports department, where the sports package is produced out-of-house by the local all-sports station. Connally can't imagine that happening, but that certainly doesn't mean she can, for all her experience in the Boston sports market, predict the future of her business.

"Where it's going to be? That's the question," Connally said. "I can't imagine that [losing sports] could happen here in Boston. I'm not sure there's an outlet that would have time to produce a sportscast for another channel. I'm not sure that a local station would want to give up that part of their identity and that part of their personality.

"I think sports is still too important in Boston."

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