The ruining of NBC Sports Philadelphia – the network probably still better known around here by its old name, Comcast SportsNet – is a story of corporate shortsightedness, missed opportunity, and a fundamental misunderstanding of Philadelphia sports fans. Once, the network was poised to become, by a wide margin, the dominant sports-media entity in the Philadelphia area. It could have owned the market. It is to its leaders’ and decision-makers’ shame that it doesn’t, and that its falloff has been so steep.
Just Wednesday, news leaked out that NBC Universal was letting go as many as 15 employees at the network, including Gregg Murphy of the Phillies telecast team and host/Eagles reporter Derrick Gunn. As tempting as it might be and as logical as it might seem to attribute them to the economic effects of the pandemic, these layoffs were actually part of a larger trend of change at NBC Sports Philadelphia – and little of that change, if any, has been for the better. Even if COVID-19 had never existed, NBC might have eliminated these jobs anyway; the moves fit a years-long pattern there. Make no mistake: This decline was a choice.
From its debut in 1997 until Comcast Corp. acquired NBC Universal in 2011, Comcast SportsNet was the best kind of product: one that the public didn’t know it wanted until it was available, then couldn’t do without once it was. A 24-hour Philadelphia sports channel? The idea itself was brilliant in its simplicity and obviousness.
The network had television rights to Phillies, 76ers, Flyers, and local college basketball games. It produced in-depth programming on stories of high interest and relative importance: the razing of the Spectrum, the unraveling of Terrell Owens, the death of Harry Kalas. Eagles Postgame Live – with a panel analyzing, marveling at, and raging about the outcome of every game, with Gunn pulling aside players outside the locker room for brief but insightful interviews – became essential to the weekly experience of watching Philadelphia’s most popular team. And having sportswriters debate and discuss matters for 60-90 minutes on Daily News Live every weekday at 5 p.m. helped the network achieve a balance of tone, sensibility, and credibility that is difficult to strike.
By 2010, those smart approaches and built-in advantages had Comcast SportsNet primed to solidify its position and even expand its reach and influence. Sports radio had screamers. The newspapers had writers. The local TV stations devoted little of each early-evening newscast to sports, and they filled that time with highlights that were already past their expiration date. Comcast SportsNet, through television and its website, could deliver the best of those media and shed their inherent restrictions and limitations.
It didn’t have a hard print deadline each night, and the region has so many people who care about and immerse themselves in their teams’ fortunes that Comcast SportsNet didn’t have to stick to the surface, rah-rah-sis-boom-bah style that characterizes so much sports coverage. It hired experienced beat writers and columnists to bolster its digital presence, to break news, and to brand the network – and at the time, there was merit to this assertion – as the place to find out what was really going on in Philadelphia sports.
But once it was dropped into NBC’s array of regional sports networks, Comcast SportsNet immediately began to drift from the philosophies that had made it so successful. Somewhere along the way, someone forgot how much sports matters here – and how much speaking honestly, even critically, about sports matters here. Take one example: In 2015, the network debuted a morning show, Breakfast on Broad. Given the talent in its ensemble, the money poured into it, and the theory underpinning it – that Philadelphians would love a two-hour chance each morning to delve into what was good and bad about the teams they love – the show should have been a smash. It lasted less than two years. You don’t have to take sports seriously here all the time, but you have to take it seriously enough. Breakfast on Broad didn’t.
That corporate thinking seeped everywhere. To try to keep up with the shifts in media consumption and to make sure its relationships with the local franchises were free from any tension, NBC Sports Philadelphia allowed its content too often to veer into unrepentant and excruciating homerism and cheerleading – a pose that, despite all those Gritty-related retweets and aggregated Joel Embiid Instagram posts, just doesn’t play here the way it might elsewhere. Believing that what was good for one market was good for every market, NBC wanted its regional sports networks to be homogeneous, to be as similar in their programming as possible regardless of the tradition and collective disposition of each city. In Philadelphia, that meant Lorenzo’s became Domino’s.
A roundtable-discussion show might founder in another town, but it was appointment television here. No matter. Daily News Live and Philly Sports Talk vanished. When it comes to sports, Philadelphia has a long institutional memory. It’s provincial. It prizes expertise, a knowledge of history, and the perspective that such knowledge brings. No matter. NBC Sports Philadelphia said goodbye to familiar, experienced staffers of a particular age: Neil Hartman, Dei Lynam, Ron Burke, Leslie Gudel, Gunn, more.
There’s a difference between what makes for good television and what makes for good online content. No matter. NBC could lower costs by applying the same programming formula everywhere, even if that formula required the creation of shows that consisted of a couple of fans sitting in front of laptops and reading from their social-media feeds, that touted the fans’ “outsider” status, and that featured all the production value of a closed-circuit infomercial shot in a stoner’s basement in Aurora, Ill.