Back in September, thanks to two mega-billion-dollar corporations finally deciding to play nice with one another and allow normal sports fans to give them a bunch of money, I watched NFL RedZone for the first time. I came away a bit rattled by the experience; like most RedZone fans, I essentially stared at the channel non-stop for seven hours, but I came away a bit concerned if the channel had given up the NFL ghost a little bit. Once you'd watched the exciting part of every NFL game, back-to-back, with no pauses or commercials, how could you go back to watching just one normal one? It boiled football down to its most primal, efficient basics, and in doing so, it highlighted just how much of an average football game is dull filler.
I enjoy football, but I love college basketball, so I was ecstatic to learn that Verizon FiOS - which I recently switched to from Time Warner Cable and which has changed my life dramatically for the better - had the ESPN Buzzer Beater channel. Like the ESPN Goal Line channel (which runs Saturdays throughout the college football season), Buzzer Beater flips back and forth between live games, with studio hosts holding down the fort. It runs Wednesday nights from 7 to 10 p.m. ET and Saturdays from noon to 1 p.m. NFL RedZone for college hoops?
I'd never actually sat down and watched it before, though. Watching NFL RedZone was so addictive that sitting down to watch one game in real time became a chore; watching Buzzer Beater made me wish I'd just sat down and watched one game after all. NFL RedZone makes you feel like you're not missing a thing; Buzzer Beater makes you feel like you're missing everything.
Much of this has to do with the nature of the channels themselves, and their production. NFL RedZone features one guy in a room, making no pretense of analysis or perspective. He is here to guide you through the madness of what is basically a football strobe light, a kaleidoscopic sensation explosion. (Think of the RedZone host as someone guiding you through an acid trip, is what I'm saying; "be cool, man, it's all gonna be fine … just let it ride …") Buzzer Beater is far more pedestrian than that. They have a studio host and analyst - a couple of guys pretty far down the ESPN food chain, I'll say; I'd never seen either one of them before - and while they did fine, I couldn't help but wonder why they were there at all. You're a network that exists only to switch back and forth between live games. The last thing I want is talking.
The fundamental question about a channel like this is: Are they switching back-and-forth between games better than I could myself? On NFL RedZone, there's no question. They've honed and perfected the practice so definitively by this point that sometimes I wonder if they're available to be hired out to run my own remote control, in case I ever need them. The remote control - the ability to fly across the cable dial, free, like one of the guardian owls of legend! - is a sports fan's sacred amulet, and that we trust RedZone with it speaks volumes on how addictive and skilled that network is. (It's amusing that Andrew Siciliano, on the DirecTV version of RedZone, still says the channels the games are on, as if he's alerting you to flip over. No one ever does. We're in good hands already.) But with Buzzer Beater, I'm not sure I couldn't do a better job myself. The network tends to stick with high-profile games far longer than they have to even if they're blowouts. I'm also not sure about their news judgment; they clearly haven't looked at enough S-curves to understand which games are most important for tournament seedings, preferring to stay on games with brand-name teams rather than actual relevance.
Another issue, one that isn't really Buzzer Beater's fault: cable deals and rights. NFL RedZone can bounce to and fro, Fox to CBS and back again, like it's clicking around the Internet. One of the many refreshing things about the channel is that it treats billion-dollar contracts like they're nothing, mere small print easily ignored and discarded in the name of ultimate fan service. Buzzer Beater, because it's an ESPN joint, has no such luck. There are some non-ESPN channels allowed to appear on Buzzer Beater - regional networks like CSN Chicago, or ROOT Sports, or even NBC Sports Network - but you won't see any CBS network games on there, or, in the case of last Saturday, anything from the Big Ten Network. That was particularly unfortunate Saturday because BTN was showing Minnesota at Wisconsin, one of the best games of the day, and one I had to keep leaving Buzzer Beater to go check out.
Listen, it's not necessarily fair to carp on Buzzer Beater for not being as good as RedZone, one of the most unique and fan-friendly devices in recent sports memory. But if you're going to invite comparisons, and have a channel devoted to giving you the best live look-ins of college basketball twice a week, these days, you have to be able to do it exactly right. Buzzer Beater is still a great idea, but it's got a while to go.
RedZone is for the most hardcore of NFL (and, more apt, fantasy football) fans. Buzzer Beater is for the tourists. I'll still be watching it, as the background music of a day of basketball, as an alert when to switch over to other channels, as an alternative to watching my own team play. But it won't change college basketball viewing the way RedZone changed the NFL. Which, hey: That's probably a good thing.
* * *
Still: A channel devoted just to college basketball is cool in my book. 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.