Friday, October 15, 2010

We Lose Again?

Pool Synergy 12: Pool & Television

Eddy & Charlie: "We lose again?"
Remember this scene? Fast Eddy is shooting pool. He’s been at it for hours, days even. At first Eddy wins big. But the Fatman keeps coming at him, keeps stroking balls, confidently, quickly, one by one. And eventually it all goes south for Eddy. Charlie the stakehorse sits dejectedly to one side. At Charlie’s feet are enough cigarette butts to fill a small pot hole.

The end comes miserably for Fast Eddy.

“We lose again, Charlie?” he asks, already knowing the answer.
“We lose again,” says Charlie.

We all face defeats. Some are trivial. Others sting. The worst are those that come when victory seems so tantalizingly close. These are the soul crushing defeats of come-from-behind candidates, of foreclosed homes and failed marriages. These are the overtime losses that keep the hometown team out of the Super Bowl, of finishing second best.

To me, that scene in The Hustler has always been a metaphor for just this sort of loss. This month's edition of Pool Synergy is devoted to what could be another: the very real possibility that pool will vanish from television.  Our Pool Synergy host predicts that soon, very soon, most American TV coverage for pool will be a memory. “It’s fairly safe to say that sometime within the next couple of years, the only billiards events we'll see here in the states will be trick shots and speed pool,” he writes.

His question: what impact will this have on our sport?

Quick review. Pool Synergy is a monthly collaborative effort in which online pool writers take on a single theme. This month our host, the anonymous founder of the Pool Cue News and Review blog, poses a question that I believe can be answered with but a single word. No essay required. The loss of TV coverage for pool would be disastrous.

But there is hope. Our anonymous host takes it as an article of faith that coverage will fade away. The eternal optimist in me rails against this proposition. I agree our industry has entered into some dark days. But I also believe the changing nature of television should open up new opportunities.

In 1978 Minnesota Fats faced Willie Mosconi in The Great Shoot-Out. It was the most watched pool competition in U.S. history, its rankings commensurate to some World Series games. (Read all about it in The Hustler & The Champ.) But that was the age before cable, TiVo and youtube. Those days are history. Today, television is granular, a medium in which giant ratings are almost unheard of, but where there’s space for relatively low-rated events like hot dog-eating contests, hot rod shows and poker. There’s never been a time with so much bad TV. Or so much good.

It’s been said that reality TV may presage the fall of Western Civilization. But what about reality TV devoted to professional pool? I opened the question recently to folks on my Facebook page. The response was enthusiastic. Said one reader: “It is incredibly frustrating to hear that the country's most popular sport (yes, pool is played by more Americans than football, baseball, soccer, basketball, or midget horseback racing) is lacking so heavily in TV coverage, yet there are shows about 'ice road truckers'? Ridiculous.”

I’m also heartened to see what The Action Report is doing. The recent challenge match between Shane Van Boening and Mika Immonen provides an excellent road map for what could sell on cable. Same rules: $10,000 entry fee. Winner takes all. I imagine hand-held camera shots of serious looking men counting cash stacked in piles. As an added touch the TV producers could have the cash prominently displayed throughout the entire contest. The camera could pan back to it before each commercial break. A little bit of pre-match trash talk also would help.

Why wouldn’t that work? Am I dreaming? It would have the same feel as the Fast Eddy versus Minnesota Fats challenge match in The Hustler, but made for reality TV. It seems to me that such events would be relatively inexpensive to produce, and that venues would jump at the chance to host them because of the potential TV exposure. You could even pit a top woman pro against a top man. Bill it as the battle of the sexes. Imagine the drama. Imagine the pathos. And because of the granular nature of today’s TV audiences, the producers no longer need out-of-the-park ratings to declare success.

The down side would be that two-person events would limit exposure for other players. But such events could become a first step, something to help our sport rebuild in the new media age. In my dream world, broader coverage would follow. I agree with one reader, who wrote me recently that he wanted more “real” pool on TV – games like some straight pool, one pocket or some bank pool. “When I watch pool I want to see the skill, the heart, and the look of determination on the players faces,” he said.

The challenge match format could fit the bill.  The alternative is that our sport will continue its fall into irrelevance. The result, in a word, would be disastrous.

We lose again Charlie?


p00lriah. said...

i don't know, mr. dyer. i was at the oscar d. vs. john morra TAR challenge. i think that event drew about 500 spectators, and it took three days to finish. i'm not sure our average tv viewers have the knowledge or the stamina required for that. it takes certain amount of knowledge to watch pool, and that'll take awhile to teach to average tv viewers.

R A Dyer said...

I agree absolutely that the format would have to be changed for mass audience TV. I'm not talking 100 games for $10,000. But how about *10 games* for $10,000? I think it would work. Or how about the ring game format, with the already high stakes continuing to rise as the contest progresses? said...

Okay, I caught most of the last day of SVB vs. Mika. Why couldn't someone (Justin, Jerry T, Andy, or some film student) distill the ~20+ hours of coverage to the most compelling 3 minutes of footage? Excellent shots, gut-wrenching mistakes, emotional reactions, crowd cheers and groans would make a non-pool fan see the best bits.

Might this kind of highlight reel be newsworthy, or have a chance to go viral? I think it's obvious that we need more players coming into the game to replace the outgoing. I'd bet creating an electrifying teaser short film would hook a few newbies on the game.

p00lriah. said...

going back to the oscar v. morra example, the event drew roughly 500 spectators. in any other major sport i could think of, they'd have 500 people working at the event. the spectator count would be a minimum of 5000 people, and that's a really slow night. even the LA clippers can get 10k in attendance.

the sad truth is that pool at this point is not a profitable commodity. and again, our average tv viewers are not likely to have the necessary knowledge to watch pool, and teaching them will take time and money. when times are bad, it makes sense to retreat a bit and focus on the smaller scale stuff, like local and regional fans and media coverage aimed at them, instead of a national audience.

this is just my opinion though. agree or disagree, at least we're having a civil discussion in an open forum. i do think that your ideas can work well in the asian market, where pool is an established sport.

R A Dyer said...

p00lriah, I agree that education is important. However, I don't think that the average TV viewer today is any more or less educated about our sport than they were in 1978, when about 20 million tuned in to watch Fats and Mosconi. That's why I think the potential is there for some sort of successful pool programing on TV. People will watch pool if it's presented in a compelling enough fashion, or if the event producers can figure out some way to capture the public's imagination.

Admittedly, we don't have personalities in our sport today with the draw of a Fats or a Mosconi. But neither do I think we need to shoot for Mosconi-Fats viewership numbers to succeed. Not with the granular nature of TV viewership these days.

But either way, thanks again for the fun debate! I'm also guessing this is a somewhat academic question anyway, as the TV programmers are going to do whatever they're going to do.

John Biddle said...

Jake, I agree with you that the audience watching Mosconi-Fats was probably no more knowledgeable about pool than an audience today, they didn't have the vast array of alternative entertainment competing with pool that exists today. Movies & TV, sports in huge numbers, the internet, etc. There will be no going back to that era, ever.

Doug said...

My friend (who is not a pool afficionado) suggested that pool tournaments should be produced with a style similar to poker, like the WSOP. Switching between the highlights (and failures) between matches feeds into the short attention span that TV viewers are often used to, similar to hands played in a poker tourney, each hand has a climax and resolution. We never see ALL the hands of any given poker table, just the highlights.

Also, interjection of entertaining and comedic commentary, pool instructional, and profiles on players. Nobody but the hardcore pool players have the knowledge or stamina to watch an entire match with interest. Education of the game is key, because the more educated viewers become of the game the more interesting it is to them.

Also we need a Don Cherry of pool. Not saying I want to do that but I made a post on the idea here: