I don’t understand why people care about television ratings. I understand why people in sports care about television ratings, though unless they’re actual television executives (who tend to care less about sports than television anyway), I don’t necessarily think they should. But I have no idea why the average person would give a flying phooey what the overnights Nielsens were, or what website is getting the most pageviews, or how many more people were watching “NCIS” than “Monday Night Football.”
There are literally hundreds of stations on the average cable dial, and what we watch on them is almost as individualized and niche anymore as the sites we click on. The Web was founded on niche markets -- on the idea that whatever weird thing you care about, no matter what it is, there are thousands upon thousands of other people who care about that exact same thing and will be willing to talk to you for hours about it -- and television is moving more and more in that direction: There’s a reason a show like “Mad Men” can be such a cultural event even though it’s watched by fewer people than your average Friday episode of “WWE SmackDown.” In an effect on the culture, broad ratings matter less than specific, targeted audience -- and should definitely matter less to an informed, intelligent observer -- but because so many media reporters and journalism folk have all decided to pretend they’re studio executives for some reason everything turns into a “mine is bigger than yours contest.” It doesn’t make any difference to me whether 40 million other people are watching what I’m watching, or 40,000 are: What matters is that I’m enjoying it, and people like me are. Just because you can count things doesn’t mean the counting is all that matters. Television ratings are not sports scores; fans have no vested interest in who wins. To paraphrase myself, it does not matter if something is popular if it is stupid.
Which brings me to the NBC Sports Network. The Intertubes were ablaze on Tuesday with Nielsen ratings for the “upstart” network formerly known as Versus formerly known as Outdoor Life. Turns out: They’re terrible. At one point, NBC Sports Talk, one of the channel’s signature evening programs, notched about 24,000 viewers, which is fewer people than live in Edwardsville, Ill. The numbers are gruesome to look at, I guess, though I dunno: 24,000 people is still more people watching you than zero. I’m not sure people in media appreciate how sort of amazing it is that anyone is paying any attention to any of us at all.
Regardless, this sort of yours-is-so-small! insider bullsnootery is exactly what I’m talking about. NBC Sports Network might not be getting all that great of ratings -- for a variety of reasons, from the lack of hockey on their schedule to their impending soccer deal to poor location on many cable systems to the lack of live sports in general to legacy contracts keeping a lot of off-brand outdoor shows on the air to the fact that they’ve existed for almost exactly one year -- but that doesn’t change the fact that, well … it’s sort of a good channel.
Now, I use “good” relatively there: I’m not a heavy watcher of the channel myself, probably because I have little interest in hunting, poker or Mike Florio. (Also, I love to fish, but not to watch people fish, a distinction one wouldn’t think would need to be made.) They also don’t have much college basketball on, my primary non-baseball-season passion, and I’ve generally progressed to the point in my sports viewing life that I almost exclusively watch sports channels for actual sports, rather than people talking about sports. Years of ESPN have beaten me down. I can sort of only handle the games themselves anymore.
But it’s obvious that NBC Sports Network is trying something different. Every time I’ve turned on the channel -- and it has become my “all right, so there are no live sports on right now but I need something in the background” default channel -- the one thing I never see are two people screaming at each other. I don’t see little widgets keeping score between sportswriters, or #embracedebate, or Happy Birthday, Backup Quarterback. I see at least an honest attempt to be an alternative to ESPN, a place where all the junk that has surrounded ESPN, the corporate junk that has completely taken over the network we all fell in love with a decade ago, a place where all that takes a backseat to, you know, the actual sports.
The morning highlight show “The 'Lights” -- which would have a lot more viewers were the network not contractually obligated to show people shooting animals in the face all morning -- is proof of what you would get if you actually eliminated all the excess self-aggrandizing detritus that makes up about half of every “SportsCenter.” You just get scores and highlights and all the things that used to be “SportsCenter;” for crying out loud, they even have time for international soccer highlights on that show. “NBC Sports Talk” is a sports talk show with actual news voices, intelligent writers and bloggers who have something to add to the conversation; I’ll take Craig Calcaterra and Joe Sheehan discussing the Hall of Fame vote over John Kruk, that’s for damned sure.
It’s not just NBC Sports Network, either. The decade-long unchallenged reign of ESPN has led to counterprogramming on all sorts of smaller, more focused networks, from league channels like MLB Network and the NFL Network to CBS College Sports to various Fox affiliates and subsidiaries. You’ve seen high-profile talent like Michelle Beadle and Doug Gottlieb and Rich Eisen move away from ESPN -- which used to be the only game in town -- and thrive in new environments. Now, their ratings might not be what they had at ESPN … but that’s why anyone goes to a startup, right? That desire to change things, to do something a little different?
The reason ESPN has become so infuriating to sports fans over the last decade isn’t because they’re evil, or because nobody smart works there. It’s because they have had no challengers: They’ve become more about ESPN than about sports because consumers haven’t given them any reason not to. That’s what corporations do when they dominate a market: They maximize profit, at the expense of the consumer. It is our job, as consumers, to be market-corrective: To demand higher quality, and choose it when it's available.
ESPN has had a stranglehold on the sports marketplace for a long time, and it’s going to take a while for viewing habits to change. But they will: They always do. There are people out there trying to give us more options, to give that possibility to those of us who want more. We can either mock them for ratings -- playing the ESPN/Rovellian game exactly the way they want us to play it -- or we can give them time. And we can be happy that, for once, there’s something else out there. More competition will be the best thing to happen to sports fans since ESPN … and I bet, ultimately, it’ll be the best thing to happen to ESPN too. But hang in there. You can’t build Rome, and shows that don’t involve bait and tackle, in a day.
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Another difference: I have Verizon Fios, where all the sports channels are right next to one another. It’s not difficult for me to find these non-ESPN channels at all. Remember, this column is meant as a valve, a release, for when you’re yelling at your television during games, or, after reading a particular column, you’re pounding your fists into your computer. Obviously, I’ll need your help to do that. Anything you want me to write about, let me know, through email or Twitter. I am at your beck and call.