The hot-takers are winning, guys. It may even be time to call the race. Maybe they’ve already won, past tense and insufferable future.
This much is certain: the vast majority of Boston sports fans who pay attention to electronic media are complicit, your grouchy neighborhood sports media columnist included.
I’m pretty sure I’ve written some version of this column before in my eight years on this beat, though I couldn’t dig it up in my archive of old stories and forgotten regrets. (Did I really praise WEEI’s hiring of Mike Salk ? The records say I did. I am so sorry.)
No matter. A couple of events of the past couple of weeks have made it apparent that it needs to be written again. So here’s the reminder, then the vaguely hopeful admonishment:
Viewers and listeners — nationally and in this market — will never get what we claim to want for programming, but what the data confirms we want. We’re getting what our habits tell Nielsen and what we want.
And judging by what is succeeding nowadays — again, nationally and in this market — what we want are hot-takes and transparently contrived opinions, even as we caterwaul and complain and claim to not desire anything of the shrill sort.
The aforementioned events that confirmed this to me, harshly and again? Foremost is Comcast SportsNet New England’s decision, revealed in this space last Friday, to part ways with Bob Neumeier and Sean McAdam at the end of the year.
Both were reasonable voices (though Neumy would tweak the audience, usually with a wink, when the mood struck) who had long-established gravitas on the Boston sports scene. The response, in my e-mail and on social media, brought a large sample of near-unanimous disappointment, and not just in regard to their dismissals. Word that CSN is seriously considering more opinion-based talking heads programming at the expense of news and highlights also brought scorn.
Which is great. That was my feeling, too. Except within many of those responses was a clue as to exactly why CSN is taking such an approach. One correspondent lamented the departure of McAdam, who covered the Red Sox with clear eyes for 27 years, by noting that he would land on his feet. (Hopefully, if he wishes, but where are these landing spots to be found in this landscape?)
And then came the clue: They really should have dumped Gary Tanguay!, that correspondent added. Others offered similar responses, but citing other higher-profile antagonists such as Michael Felger, Kirk Minihane, or Tony Massarotti as those they’d like to see on the Boston sports media waiver wire.
Which is exactly why none of them are going anywhere any time soon. They’re the ones we’re talking about, even when we think we’re saluting someone else. They’re the ones we’re listening to, even when we claim we haven’t listened in weeks. They’re the ones driving the narrative, because we let them.
The other aforementioned event is the revelation of the Nielsen audio fall radio ratings last week. Once again, Felger and Massarotti’s program on 98.5 The Sports Hub ran away with the crucial men 25-54 demographic in afternoon drive with a massive 16.4 rating, continuing a streak of dominance that now measures in multiple years rather than months.
In morning drive, Minihane and Gerry Callahan’s program on WEEI was second to The Sports Hub’s “Toucher and Rich” program, but its ratings are excellent (12.5 share in the fall), and the program’s improvement in that regard parallels Minihane’s occasionally controversial rise to prominence.
This isn’t to suggest that there aren’t successful shows and personalities that take a more authentic approach. The Sports Hub’s “Toucher and Rich” program — a ratings powerhouse — isn’t for everyone, but its personalities always come across as genuine and reasonable. Same for WEEI’s “Dale and Holley” show, a good-natured program which is typically a steady but distant second to “Felger and Mazz” in afternoon drive.
But it’s considerably easier to find success by being brash and opinionated rather than measured and thoughtful. It’s so much more difficult — and far less lucrative — to find an audience as a voice of reason, even if it does keep your conscience clear. Felger and Minihane are both talented hosts, but both have spawned imitators who lack the instinct for being entertaining even when they’re aggravating.
For years, Tanguay was what a former colleague of mine called a 42 regular — a guy who fit the suit jacket, Johnny Bravo-style, but never became a major player. A couple of years ago, he adopted a loose-cannon personality, and his profile grew. It’s why he’s one of the current survivors at CSN as it shifts its focus. You don’t have to search far to see other personalities in the market attempting to do the same thing. It’s practically a matter of survival.
This is the trickle-down effect of a sports media universe in which Skip Bayless — a journeyman sports columnist in his past professional life — makes a reported $6.5 million a year to shriek his contrivances about LeBron James, Tim Tebow, and other often-trending names on Fox Sports 1. They’re paying him that ludicrous amount of money because we’re paying attention.
If you want smarter sports media, more authentic and well-considered sports media, more people like McAdam and Neumeier to stick around, the only way to get it is to pay attention to them. It seems like a simple demand. But the numbers — in the ratings and the salaries — tell us it is not, at all.
We may complain about the antagonists. But we’re the ones subsidizing them with our unrelenting attention, even when we pretend we’re looking away.
Chad Finn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.