MLB's pace of play initiatives felt in TV production too

When Phil Orlins produced ''Sunday Night Baseball,'' a clock started ticking down in his head the moment the last out ended an inning.

Now, a real timer counts down in the ballpark during commercial breaks. The networks televising Major League Baseball games always had to weigh whether they could squeeze in one more replay or anecdote before the next pitch. Starting this season, they must factor in the sport's renewed efforts to speed up play.

To the viewer at home, the initial impact is barely perceptible: an announcer wrapping up an inning a bit more succinctly after the third out, or a graphic not shown until a foul ball. Commercial breaks remain the same lengths, but teams now face a deadline for the first pitch of the next half inning.

The new regulations requiring hitters to keep a foot in the batter's box include plenty of exceptions, and for now penalties are limited to warnings and fines; those don't even begin until May 1. Like players, managers and fans, network executives are curious to see how the initiative alters the game - or doesn't - and how to adapt.

''We're all keeping an extra eye on it, knowing that the pace could pick up and not knowing where, when or why,'' said Brad Zager, Fox Sports' vice president of remote operations.

In the past, producers still had to act under the assumption that players would follow the league's guidelines - even if they often didn't. Orlins, now the senior coordinating producer for MLB on ESPN, said he couldn't risk the revenue loss of cutting short a commercial because a pitch was about to be thrown. If the defense made a great play for the third out and a replay couldn't be ready in 2-3 seconds, he'd wait until after the break to show it.

''We can't sit around when the inning ends and say, `OK, they probably won't be precise on other side,' and take 30 seconds,'' he said.

In that sense, the clock in the stadium helps by taking away the guesswork. The network's only concern came on potential challenges of calls, he said. MLB gave assurances that the countdown clock wouldn't start until a manager had decided not to ask for a review, to ensure producers could wait to see what was happening and still fit in the full commercial break.

The pace has always varied greatly from pitcher to pitcher and hitter to hitter, and networks would tweak their broadcasts accordingly.

''When you're producing a game, you take your rhythm from the starting pitcher,'' Zager said.

Last weekend's Sunday night game, a 2-1 Cardinals victory over the Reds, lasted 2 hours, 2 minutes - mostly thanks to starters Adam Wainwright of St. Louis and Mike Leake of Cincinnati working quickly, not to mention effectively. But if the TV crew knows going in that the pitchers will likely be plodding, they'll have plenty of graphics, highlight packages and anecdotes ready.

Batters, too.

With Nomar Garciaparra, Zager recalled, ''You knew you could read `The Odyssey' in between pitches.''

As the new pace-of-play rules potentially take away some traditional spots to show a replay or tell a story, others remain. If, say, the catcher was on base at the end of the top of an inning, producers know the bottom may be delayed a bit as he puts on his gear in the dugout. Or certain pitchers may slow down considerably with a man on.

And if a starter like Wainwright is zipping along, that's certainly not a bad thing for entertainment value.

''Really great pitchers make it a lot of fun,'' Zager said. ''We're really going to pull back and show those guys off anyway.''

Like baseball executives, Zager is curious to see if tighter games can lure in more viewers. Will fans be more likely to flip back to the game before the end of the commercial break if they know the next pitch will come almost immediately after the broadcast resumes?

So far this season, the average game is 2 hours, 55 minutes, down from 3:01 at this time last year.

''Action is good TV - I know that much,'' Orlins said.

In college football, he added, the rapid pace of Oregon's offense is nothing but exciting. As he wryly noted, no one ever laments, ''Gee, I wish they could slow down and show a few more graphics and a few more replays.''

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