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How NESN has changed in 30 years

Ned Martin and Bob Montgomery called some of the earliest Sox games on NESN.

Globe file photo

Ned Martin and Bob Montgomery called some of the earliest Sox games on NESN.

The headline and the colossal if grimly comical failure it suggests must rank on the short list of any television executive’s worst nightmares.

And yet the story it begins to tell is so unfathomable that there must be some comfort found in the knowledge that such a scenario could only unfold in the deep recesses of the unrestrained imagination.

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Except that this headline wasn’t imagined. It was real, right there in blunt black and white, printed in the April 5, 1984, editions of the Globe, over a Jack Craig-bylined story describing the upstart and still obscure New England Sports Network’s first Red Sox regular-season game broadcast:

“NO ONE SAW SOX ON TV”

The typeface might have been bold, but the wording was not. Nor was it hyperbolic. It was the cold, matter-of-fact truth. No one — not even a single one of the 20 or so full-time employees at the network’s offices in the bowling-alley bowels of Fenway Park — saw the first Red Sox game on NESN.

It was not a matter of instant apathy after the Sox lost their 1984 opener two days earlier. Nor was it technical difficulties. Call it a problem of conceptual difficulties, starting with the unfamiliarity then of what the regional cable sports network was and where to find it.

“Because of the Red Sox and Bruins, you were finding out about NESN probably before you knew what cable was, depending upon what town you lived in,’’ said Peter Plaehn, NESN’s vice president of affiliate relations.

“I’m sure people called asking how to get NESN and the answer was, ‘Well, you don’t yet. Cable isn’t available in your area yet.’ And meanwhile they’re adjusting their rabbit ears on their televisions to try to figure it out. “

After four rescheduled launch dates beginning late in 1982, NESN premiered in March 1984 with a Red Sox-Tigers spring training game from Lakeland, Fla. It was the second regional sports network in the country to debut, arriving just behind MSG Network in New York.

It’s uncertain how many viewers were able to watch that spring training broadcast, which was made available for free to cable subscribers in Boston. But this is certain: That first regular-season broadcast, with the trivia-question tandem of Kent Der Divanis and Mike Andrews on the call, remains unheard for all eternity by everyone other than those who were a part of it.

The reason? No local cable provider had picked up the broadcast. Some tried, but didn’t have the proper equipment or hadn’t yet paid for the expensive adjustments required to receive the satellite signal NESN was using. Others simply didn’t want to pay for it. So, as Craig wrote, Der Divanis and Andrews “had the choice of talking to each other or to no one.”

Broadcasting behemoth

Such an anecdote — hilarious in retrospect, but a nightmare for those involved then — illustrates not only what NESN was up against, but how much has changed during its 30 years on the air. The network is celebrating the anniversary throughout this year with various highlights and reminiscences, including an upcoming documentary.

NESN, still the home to the Red Sox and Bruins, is a broadcasting behemoth now. That first year, it had roughly 60,000 subscribers. The next? 100,000. Now? 4.1 million.

In Year 1, it was available in 15-20 percent of the homes in New England. Now, since making the essential switch to basic cable in 2001, NESN has 100 percent market penetration all the way to the edge of Fairfield County in Connecticut.

It broadcasts a couple of hundred professional games per year as well as roughly 100 college games. Its average household Bruins rating in 2013-14 was the highest ever on the network (6.0). The Red Sox can boast of the highest average rating on regional sports networks over the last decade (9.1).

Forbes named NESN — which, like the Globe, is owned by John Henry — the eighth-most valuable sports brand in the world in 2013, and noted that it has a brand value of $500 million while charging an average affiliate fee of $3.56 per month per subscriber, the third-most of any RSN in the country.

Yes, a lot has gone right since the night the ballgame — a 2-1 Sox victory on a ninth-inning Mike Easler home run — was broadcast into the ether. And so much has changed. The celebration of the anniversary isn’t so much about the history of NESN but those people and moments that made the history.

Respected executives such as John Claiborne and Bob Whitelaw have come and gone, as have countless personalities and programs. Ned Martin and Bob Montgomery, already on Channel 38, became the Red Sox voices on NESN, too. Bob Kurtz called games for a while before opening the door for Don Orsillo. Jerry Remy arrived in 1988. Bob Rodgers preceded Tom Caron as the studio host.

Tom Larson . . . Kristin Mastroianni . . . Jim Corsi . . . Amy Stone . . . “Front Row” . . . “SportsDesk” . . . “Sox Appeal” . . .

“What you really have,’’ said NESN president and CEO Sean McGrail, who arrived at the network in 1985, “is the transition from sleepy little fledgling network to overnight success in only 30 years.”

The mental hurdle

It wasn’t just the headline writers who caused NESN grief in the early days. The cartoonists had their fun, too. McGrail keeps a certain one in his office as a reminder of how it all began, and the skepticism the network faced.

The cartoon features a bulldozer plowing into a storefront. The bulldozer is labeled “the fans.” The storefront window reads “NESN.” And the caption explains the fans’ rebellion to being asked to pay for sports that had, in their perception, been free before. Funny? Depends on your sense of humor. But the point is sharp.

“People had a hard time getting their heads around the concept of paying for cable, even if it was for games they wouldn’t have received otherwise,’’ said McGrail. “It was like, ‘Why would I buy cable? I’ve got Channels 4, 5, and 7 [as well as 38 and 56]. Five channels! Why would I need more? My parents never bought cable. They never needed more.’ That mind-set had to be overcome.”

That reaction may be hard to fathom now in a world in which you can watch what you want when you want on the device of choice, but there was natural skepticism regarding cable television in general during NESN’s early days. That particularly applied to premium cable.

“When I got this job in ’95, first thing my dad said was, ‘Isn’t that 15 bucks a month?’ ’’ said Caron with an exaggerated growl. “ ‘I’ll see what I can do,’ I told him.

“He wasn’t much of a hockey fan. There were years where we subscribed to NESN in the summer and got rid of it in November. ‘You want the Bruins, you pay for it,’ he’d say. And he would wait until June to see if the Red Sox were going to be worth his investment.”

It all changed when NESN went to basic cable, completing the transition in July 2001 with the move to AT&T Broadband in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. It was something many around NESN believed for years to be necessary, particularly Nate Greenberg, the longtime Bruins public relations director and executive.

“We were late to that game, frankly,’’ McGrail said. “The old [Red Sox] ownership group wasn’t in love with that idea. They just didn’t understand it and hadn’t really embraced that as a transitional method for NESN to really expand our reach.

“It really allowed us to become a player in the marketplace. With half-a-million premiums, you’re not going to garner enough audience to support anything but the core telecasts.”

HD comes into focus

The move to basic cable was one of three major transitions in NESN history. Another was an actual move — from Fenway to its state-of-the-art building in Watertown in 2006. That afforded another transition — the ability to produce all Red Sox and Bruins programming in high definition, the first regional sports network to do so.

The effect of high def on hockey has been plainly obvious from the first time the puck dropped during an HD broadcast. The puck becomes crystal clear, and the viewing experience is enhanced to the point that you can’t imagine watching any other way. Pre-HD “innovations” such as Fox’s glowing tail on the puck are no longer considered.

NESN began testing HD not on Bruins telecasts (all home and road games have aired on NESN since 2002-03) but during some covert, never-aired run-throughs of Red Sox broadcasts in 2002.

“At the end of the ’02 season, we did eight games in HD that never hit air,’’ recalled Red Sox coordinating director Mike Narracci, who has been at NESN since 2000. “We did a separate truck, separate crew, dabbled in it, to see what it looked like, from production elements to see what we needed to do to make it look good and work.

“We just played around with shooting the game. Sat there and looked at things and said, ‘Oh my God, we can see six rows behind the plate. Look, there’s Bob.’ It took some getting used to. It was nice to be able to experiment off-line.”

There are no known bootleg copies of those lost HD sessions. But were they ever well-timed. The Red Sox were doing all home games in HD by 2004, and were fully HD — provided the road city was compatible to the technology — in ’06. That progress came just as even casual fans’ interest in the Red Sox piqued, with the accompanying ratings peak.

Throwback moments

NESN garnered the highest rating in baseball for a regional sports network for the first time in 2004, a streak it would continue for six years. Saturation coverage still didn’t satiate the fan base, especially around the annual baseball trading deadline, when it seemed Manny Ramirez was going to be dealt every year. (He finally was, in 2008.)

But no moment emphasizes the craziness of that time more than what Caron calls the “Seven Hours of Dice-K.”

No, that’s not a reference to how long it took Daisuke Matsuzaka to complete seven innings of a start during his maddening six seasons with the Red Sox. It refers to the day in 2007 the Red Sox closed the deal for the Japanese righthander.

Let Caron explain:

“We were on the air for seven hours. Literally, seven hours. Came on at noon in place of what was ‘NESN Daily’ at the time. He was getting on the plane to come here and join the Red Sox, and not getting on the plane, getting on the plane, then not getting on the plane.

“There was actual suspense. And then they got on the plane. We stayed on the air from noon until he dropped the puck at the Bruins game at 7.

“Those are the random things you remember. Going on the air for seven hours and talking Dice-K. Yep.”

Years before that, it was a pitcher of somewhat less hype and, eventually, far greater accomplishment who still stands as an illustration of how far NESN has come. It was during the network’s rookie year, 1984, that a player of some note made his debut for the Red Sox.

Two years later, Roger Clemens would provide the first unforgettable NESN moment, striking out 20 Seattle Mariners on April 29, 1986.

“I remember [Montgomery’s] call, and Ned Martin, who was still the voice at that time,’’ said Rose Mirakian, who was part of NESN’s crew that night. “It was such a special feeling to be a part of that, one of the first big moments.”

Mirakian, who began working at NESN as a receptionist in 1984 and is now the senior director of Bruins hockey, knows how things have changed — on the air and behind the scenes — as well as anyone. But it’s a subtle memory that helps her illustrate the evolution perfectly.

“I just remember these really bright blue graphics during the Clemens game,’’ she said. “Cyan was the color of choice that year.”

Back then, that was high-definition.

Highest-rated games in NESN history

BRUINS
DateOpponentRating
April 25, 2012Washington (Game 7)19.6
April 27, 2011Montreal (Game 7)17.7
May 13, 2013Toronto (Game 7)16.8
May 6, 2011Philadelphia (Game 4) 15.2
April 24, 2014Detroit (Game 4)14.4
RED SOX
DateOpponentRating
May 1, 2006Yankees22.3
Aug. 28, 2007Yankees22.2
Sept. 27, 2005Blue Jays21.0
Sept. 14, 2007Yankees19.9
April 4, 2010Yankees19.7

Chad Finn can be reached at finn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.
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