The Dubious Decline of TV Sports

With the glory days of TV sports reporting long gone, Philadelphia's local sports anchors swagger on.

GROWING UP IN South Jersey, I was a baseball kid. As much as I’d bounce off the walls and roam the neighborhood on a BMX bike or a skateboard, there was something about watching the Phillies that put me in an almost hypnotic state. I couldn’t sit still at the dinner table, but somehow I was content to follow Mike Schmidt from first inning to last.

Athletes cast a potent spell, and so did the men who covered them for the local news. Bylines in the newspaper only held my attention for so long. When Don Tollefson, Gary Papa or Al Meltzer interviewed my heroes in powder blue, or were soaked with champagne during a post-season celebration, they achieved near-mythic status.­ If you missed the game, you waited for the news to see the score, but even more, to hear the stories within the game, as crafted by these anchormen. And it wasn’t just the fans who admired them—after giving Meltzer a personalized Sixers jersey in honor of his retirement at NBC 10, Mo Cheeks dabbed at tears. Papa’s death from prostate cancer in 2009 inspired citywide mourning. A decade ago, when I ran into him and his wife at a downtown bar, it was like meeting one of the athletes I’d idolized in my youth. Unlike some of those icons, he couldn’t have been kinder.

NBC 10 sports director Vai Sikahema remembers the glory years. The ex-Eagle began his television career in 1994, alongside Meltzer, the dean of Philly sports broadcasting (he debuted at Channel 17 in 1966), and Ron Burke, who’s now with CSN.

“Twenty years ago, everybody sat down before or after dinner to watch Al or Gary Papa give them their sports news,” Sikahema says. “Now, you can get it anyplace: iPads, smartphones. We’re competing for a slice of pie that gets smaller and smaller.”

Back then, sports could get four minutes or occasionally more in a newscast. But trouble loomed in the form of market researchers, who told network news directors that the future was in weather, not highlights. Forecasts were moved up from the end of the newscast to the middle, and expanded.

“In those days, it was referred to as ‘news, weather and sports,’” says CBS 3 sportscaster Steve Bucci. “Today, it’s more like ‘weather, news, weather and weather.’”

As the arms race to build a bigger Doppler radar took off, a storm of a different sort brewed further up the cable box. ESPN had grown from a niche channel into a swirling, all-encompassing tornado of sports coverage. Local news stopped trying to capture the attention of the die-hard fan and instead targeted the watercooler viewer, someone who simply needed the Eagles score and a talking point for office chitchat the next day. The rise of weather and the cable sports networks were like opposite ends of a vise, squeezing the life out of local TV sports.

“I used to get four minutes for a sportscast,” says Howard Eskin, whose first television story was the NFL strike in 1982. “Now I’m on my knees for 2:15. You’ve really got to beg.” During sweeps, or if news breaks, the share can get sliced to a paltry 90 seconds.

NBC 10 weekend sports anchor John Clark is the bridge between the old guard like Eskin and the future that Harris and CSN represent. In a fleece jacket emblazoned with an NHL Winter Classic logo, the six-foot-five Clark is folded into a window booth at Derek’s, on Main Street in Manayunk. Between sips of Captain-and-Coke, he’s every bit the tireless optimist you see on Sunday’s Sports Final—the only long-form sports program not on CSN that gets any real attention from the face-paint-and-personalized-jersey set. The 37-year-old Temple grad says he’s never longed for the spotlight or the sports-only focus of ESPN or CSN: “To me, there’s no better job in the world,” he says of his 10-year career at NBC 10. “We’re not going to do stories about hard-core sports … during the week. We have to do stories where everyone—female, male, young, old—is going to relate. Because you know what sports, in the end, is about? It’s about people.”

Even given his Mayberry outlook on the business, Clark has a surprisingly rosy perspective when you consider the experiment another NBC affiliate is trying in California. Last summer, KNTV, the station serving San Jose, Oakland and San Francisco, began outsourcing all of its sports coverage through CSN Bay Area. Industry-watchers see this as a natural evolution in the wake of the Comcast/NBCUniversal merger, and while no jobs were lost—KNTV’s sports staff was absorbed by CSN—that might not be the case if other NBC stations adopt this model. A CSN Philadelphia spokeswoman says no plans are in the works for such an arrangement here, but Princell Hair, Comcast Sports Group’s senior VP of news operations, told Broadcasting & Cable that the network would “evaluate and look at other opportunities down the road.”

“Do I worry?” says Clark when asked about his job security. “I don’t know. The way I look at it is, in this business, we’re really lucky. There are plenty of fans who could do just as good a job as I’m doing.”

That on many nights Clark and his cohorts are doing little more than reciting scores and highlights that are hours old—an eternity in the Internet age—is another problem altogether. One evening in March, Keith Russell at Action News and Sikahema not only covered the same stories, but ran them in almost identical order. They also used much of the same footage. There had been no surprises that day at 6 p.m., either. CBS 3 covered the same stories as the other stations; in lead sports anchor Beasley Reece’s only fresh segment, a Temple basketball player was interviewed but never identified. Even athletes seem to have lost a degree of respect for guys with cameras and microphones. After a Phillies playoff game last year, Shane Victorino tore into Action News reporter Jeff Skversky: “You’re always asking these stupid fucking questions.” Another anchor in town is reviled by peers as someone who “doesn’t even like sports” and “wouldn’t know how many players are on a football roster, or the infield fly rule.” One local TV sports guy says of the business today, “It’s soul-crushing.”