By Jason Snell
April 11, 2022 4:26 PM PT
First impressions of Apple’s “Friday Night Baseball”
Apple’s now a sports broadcaster. The premiere of “Friday Night Baseball” on Apple TV+, featuring two live games, has come and gone. Any baseball fan will tell you that it’s a long season, and you can’t tell anything from the final score on opening day. But at the same time, it’s impossible to resist making some first impressions and wondering where things will go from here.
So consider these the first impressions: Apple’s games, produced by MLB Network, were competently done. Even a delay when the lights went off at Nationals Park in Washington was handled competently. Baseball games were played, there were winners, and there were losers, and nobody died. (Francisco Lindor was hit in the face by a pitch, though! He’s okay.) Yes, Apple’s stream crashed once, but let me tell you, I don’t think there’s a single streamer that has not faced some sort of technical failure when it first came time to meet peak demand for a live sports event.
While some sports bloggers think Apple shouldn’t try to stand out from MLB’s other broadcast partners, this tech blogger says the reverse: Apple’s production tended to succeed when it was trying to push the envelope and disappointed when it fell back into established broadcast patterns.
Apple clearly wants these productions to feel special, something a cut above your average local baseball broadcast. Apple’s games seem to have access to more cameras, and the three-person booths (plus a field reporter) are more in line with the marquee ESPN Sunday Night Baseball telecast or a playoff match-up. The broadcasters all seemed capable, though it’s their first week together, so I think there’s a lot of meshing yet to come.
Of course, a lot of people will complain because the broadcast doesn’t feature their home announcers. That’s true—it’s a drag to watch your team on Sunday Night Baseball, too, for the same reason. But Apple’s goal is to create a bigger, higher-quality game targeted at more than just the fans of the local teams. That means a national broadcast crew and a broader perspective when calling the game. (I realize Apple won’t do this, but it would blunt a lot of complaints if it would just let fans choose the audio from their local radio broadcast if they wanted to.)
I also applaud Apple’s attempts to make its announcing crews interesting, with an up-and-coming play-by-play announcer (Melanie Newman, Stephen Nelson), a former player (Chris Young, Hunter Pence), and a somewhat out-of-the-box second analyst (Hannah Keyser and Katie Nolan). Combine that with the field reporters (Brooke Fletcher and Heidi Watney), and more than half of Apple’s broadcasters are women. It’s about time.
The entire telecast was dressed up in Apple style, though I’m not sure if the design came from Apple or if someone at MLB Network was handed the San Francisco font and told to make it as Apple-like as possible. Beyond the typeface, everything was in a roundrect, and some graphics looked like you could tap on them. Apple’s score box meets with my approval, as it was readable and properly depicted three dots to represent the number of outs.
Perhaps the most innovative graphic during the broadcast was persistently displayed in the bottom right corner of the screen: data about the current hitter, complete with advanced stats. I like the idea, but the execution left a lot to be desired. Percentages were displayed to two decimals, which was laughable—just round to the nearest whole number. Also, this area lacked information about the batter’s performance either in the game or during the season, which would’ve been useful. Advanced stats can be fun, but I’m not sure what Apple deployed was fun. It felt a bit slapped together, but there’s potential.
And perhaps most importantly, the quality of the video was spectacularly good. Apple has made no claims about what resolution it’s broadcasting in—I certainly doubt that most baseball stadiums are 4K HDR-ready today—but the games looked much better on my TV than most other games. I suspect this says more about the vagaries of the cable/satellite TV pipeline, which probably compresses and recompresses the video to death on its way to our TVs than it does about what Apple did right. But still: It looked (and sounded, with a 5.1 surround mix) really good.
It feels like almost all of the bad stuff is likely the result of Apple taking an MLB Network production off the shelf and white-labeling it in just a few weeks. Too much of the package felt like every other baseball broadcast out there, and while some level of consistency is necessary, there are places that Apple should strive to do better. This is a product destined for a paid service viewed entirely through devices that are running apps, and it should reflect it.
First: The sponsorships. I’m hardly the most ad-allergic person out there, but Apple TV+ is a premium streaming service with no advertisements. Apple is famously controlling of its image. And yet the very first thing to appear on Apple’s very first live stream was the lion logo of BetMGM, the title sponsor of the Friday Night Baseball pre-game show, which also featured a segment in which a dude on a Zoom chat detailed a bunch of bettings odds for the game in question. I realize there’s a gold rush in U.S. sports right now as all the betting interests try to grab market share, but Apple doesn’t need to be a part of this game.
Beyond that, the commercial breaks—and there were breaks between every half-inning, which were filled with ads for U.S. viewers—seemed like something sold out of MLB Network’s ad sales group. There were ads for Subway, NFTs, and even a CDW ad featuring Microsoft Surface! Of course, there were also ads for other Apple TV+ programs, which I expected.
Now, baseball is a game with a lot of natural breaks, especially between innings. (And broadcasters have to go to the bathroom sometime.) But that said, we’ve got four-person crews with an on-field reporter. Surely there’s a way to do something interesting in between half-inning breaks that keeps our attention on the game? And if there must be a break, and no pre-taped pieces or highlights of other games are available, perhaps a couple of Apple TV+ promotions would be enough?
I know these games are free for now. But in the long run, unless Apple’s planning on building out an advertising tier of Apple TV+, it’s got to decide what it wants to do about the spaces in sports built around advertising breaks. As a paying Apple TV+ subscriber, I don’t want to see ads for Subway, no matter how much I enjoy a footlong Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki.
The rest of my complaints are about how these games failed to properly use Apple’s technology. First, the basics: You couldn’t pause or rewind the game on an Apple TV. You could pause, but not rewind, on iOS. Viewers just coming home from work ready to watch a game should be able to start from the beginning of the game and skip through the inning breaks until they catch up, but that’s not possible right now.
And then there’s the fact that this was an entirely non-interactive sportscast. Every single viewer is watching on a smart device of some kind. How about letting us customize what stats we see on screen? What about alternate camera views or a natural-sound-only audio stream featuring crowd noise and mic’ed up players? What about alternate broadcasts entirely, with audio from statheads or scouts or umpires or former players talking about a different game aspect? What about something I’m not even thinking of here?
Literally anything is possible. I realize all of it would take work to build. I even understand why it’s not available on week one and might not even be available this season. But the fact remains that Apple, an incredibly innovative technology company, debuted baseball games that it’s streaming internationally exclusively via Internet-connected devices… and the broadcast itself is as flat as a pancake, a vanilla video stream with no digital extras.
You can’t judge how the season will go based on opening night. But my first impression is that when Apple has tried to push MLB Network out of its comfort zone, the sportscast has shown promise. And when that hasn’t happened, it’s… just another baseball game on TV.
That’s not bad, but I suspect that Apple expects more from “Friday Night Baseball.” So do I.
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