Stupid like a Fox

Nov 7, 2001 at 12:00 am

I'm sitting at home, trying to watch the World Series on television, and I'm keeping score. Not of the game; I'm not that dedicated. Maybe when I'm old and fat and making $5 a word, I'll sit in front of a TV with a scorecard. No, I'm keeping score of which products are being promoted in the fuzzy, computer-projected ads on the wall behind home plate.

Pepsi. That figures. Bad enough that I can't watch movie trailers without Britney Spears or that dough-faced little girl attacking me in SurroundSound — now the World's Most Annoying Soft Drink is infecting my baseball. Nextel. OK, I'm never buying one of those goddamn walkie-talkie cell phones. Gatorade. Next time I get the flu, I'm rehydrating myself with Powerade. Gillette Mach 3. Do I dare switch to the drugstore brand of three-blade razor? Bastards.

The American Enterprise Institute would no doubt tell me that I should thank these companies rather than consider boycotting them, because they are underwriting the free delivery of the World Series into my home. But they aren't. What they are underwriting is the ability of the Fox TV network to deliver the World Series into my home. Fox has a monopoly on the playoffs because it put up a market-busting $2.5 billion bid last fall, locking up the rights to the next six seasons of Major League Baseball's major events. It has to make up that money somehow. Hence the virtual ads.

If Fox hadn't bid that much, I'd still be watching the World Series. I just wouldn't be seeing Ally McBeal's face simpering at me from that wall. Or the logo for "Boston Public." Or any of the other blurry digital crap that's being superimposed on the center-field-camera shot, the bedrock view of televised baseball. Have they shaded the camera a few feet toward left-center, to create more ad space? It's possible. Anything is possible when Fox is involved.

The virtual ads are only the most obvious symptom. Fox's baseball production is thoroughly, multidimensionally terrible. I picture a roomful of guys wearing dress shirts and dribble beards, drinking Bud Ice, brainstorming to find the worst possible way to present baseball on television. Hey, let's only show the action from the waist up! Let's triple the number of crowd shots! Oh, I know . . . let's make it interactive!

So it is that with Curt Schilling cruising against the Yankees in Game 1, Fox invites viewers to vote online about whether or not Arizona manager Bob Brenly should pull Schilling. Sixty-eight percent — that is, 68 percent of the part of the population that's simultaneously watching the game and dicking around online — say yes. Brenly, for some reason, sticks with his pitcher.

Disagreements about baseball are all too often framed as disputes between lively innovators and hidebound purists. If you're against interleague play and the wild card, then you're one of those tweedy prigs who secretly resents the fact that ballparks have electric lighting and fielders are allowed to wear webbed gloves. But the Fox broadcasts aren't about the new vs. the old. They're about stupid vs. smart, amateur vs. professional. They're not merely an insult to baseball; they're an insult to television.

For decades, real pro television has been making advertising ever more clever and seductive. Now Fox is using computer technology to re-create the ancient, bush-league ballpark billboard. Pro television is easy on the eyes; Fox is crowded and confusing. And pro TV promises a bigger, better viewing experience than you'd get from real life. What Fox supplies is smaller and worse.

When you're watching a ball game live and a close play happens, either you see it or you don't. Most JumboTron operators are not allowed to review the controversial stuff. But TV gives you the godlike power of instant replay, to see the play over and over, from every angle, till you know it with an intimacy and a certainty an umpire can only dream of.

At least, it used to. Saturday night, Craig Counsell makes a brilliant grab at second base, then throws to first to nip Enrique Wilson. But was the throw really in time? Fox goes to the tape — only to find that its camera, working in dramatic closeup, hasn't captured the foot hitting the bag. A second angle likewise misses the play. Finally, on a third try, the crew finds an image that actually shows the base. Unfortunately, there isn't any time left to study it.

Not that the announcers would say anything useful anyway. Fox's star analyst is Tim McCarver, who may be the least informative know-it-all in history. McCarver is overbearing in the Bill Walton style — Bernie Williams throws the ball wrong, he declares, and Joe Torre isn't sending base runners at the right time. But Walton would never be enough of a bore to instruct the audience that when the count goes from 2-0 to 2-2 "the advantage goes back to the pitcher." Yeah, and when the ball is hit foul, it's a "foul ball."

And then there are the infographics. Fox seems especially proud of its base-runner chart, which lights up base-emblems yellow if there's a man or men on — and which always gets updated wrong when the ball is in play. The base runner chart is crammed into the info bar at the top of the screen, which also displays the score, the inning, the count, the latest radar-gun reading, and, at the end, an mlb on fox logo. As if the viewers, squinting through the mess on the TV screen, could possibly forget it's Fox that they're stuck watching.

Tom Scocca writes for City Paper, where the original version of this feature appeared. Send comments to [email protected]