PHOENIX, AZ - JULY 11: NESN reporter Heidi Watney interviews American League All-Star Kevin Youkilis #20 of the Boston Red Sox during the Gatorade All-Star Workout Day at Chase Field on July 11, 2011 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
NESN was once at the top of its game, providing high-quality coverage of everything New England sports. But with the defections of Kathryn Tappen, the resignation of Jade McCarthy and the likelihood of Heidi Watney leaving, is NESN in big trouble?
There has been an exodus of Biblical proportions (is that redundant?) recently at NESN, a disturbing trend that leaves many wondering what the future holds for the television home of the Boston Red Sox and Boston Bruins.
This week the network announced the NESN Daily host Jade McCarthy was leaving NESN at the end of this month. There was also official confirmation from Kathryn Tappen that she was leaving to join the NHL Network. It seems all but certain that Heidi Watney is in her last season covering the Red Sox for the station. Cole Wright did not have his contract renewed by the network last November. Long-time Technical Operations Manager, Nancy Rose, who had been with the network from the beginning is said to have left, and there have been numerous defections among the sales and production ranks. Rumors have TBS making overtures to Red Sox play-by-play man Don Orsillo to come work the regular season in addition to the postseason work he does on a national basis.
In addition to the staff turnover, the network's programming decisions have been curious, at best. SportsDesk had been a staple for nearly 20 years for NESN viewers before the network canceled it in favor of NESN Daily in August of 2010. The original format of NESN Daily, which featured McCarthy and Uri Berenguer, was a critical disaster, forcing NESN to retool the show after barely three months of being on the air. It has morphed back into a style more similiar to SportsDesk, but now with McCarthy leaving, the network will be forced to change things up once more.
Watney's rumored departure would be a big loss for the network. Coming in after the popular Tina Cervasio, Watney had big shoes to fill, and has grown nicely into the role. Her work away from the camera is impressive as well, as she is a big supporter of The Jimmy Fund and other local charities. Tappen will be missed during Bruins coverage, as she was front and center on the network for much of the spring.
The Bruins Stanley Cup run should've been a time to shine for NESN. While their ratings were adequate for pregame and postgame coverage, the network faced serious competition from Comcast SportsNet New England, who went "all-in" on their coverage of the NHL playoffs and scored comparable ratings for their programming.
NESN continues to air shows with barely a peripheral connection to sports, such as After The Game, Dirty Water TV, Shining City and Pocket Money. Are people watching these shows?
It appears that the network does not even attempt in-depth coverage of the two teams that they do not broadcast the games of - the Patriots and Celtics. In contrast, CSNNE has programming dedicated to the Red Sox, Bruins and Patriots, in addition to the Celtics, who they cover extensively in addition to carrying their games. They hitched their morning wagon to WEEI's Dennis and Callahan show, just in time for the long-time ratings champ to be trounced by their 98.5 competition.
The network has also displayed a curious reluctance to break into their scheduled programming to cover breaking sports news. As just one example, at the NHL trade deadline, CSNNE broke into their programming very late at night/early in the morning to provide live reporting and analysis of a Bruins trade. NESN did not.
Some feel that the reasoning is that NESN does not want to lose money pulling away from their paid programming. The topic of money came up in several conversations I've had with people regarding NESN, one person joking to me that it is the Never Ending Sales Network.
The strength of NESN clearly lies in their game-day coverage of the Red Sox and Bruins. Their pre and post game shows are well-staffed, and their play-by-play men and game analysts are among the best in the business at what they do. For Red Sox telecasts they can trot out three members of the Baseball Hall of Fame, Dennis Eckersley, Jim Rice and Peter Gammons; to work alongside Tom Caron.
With the departures of Tappen, McCarthy and likely Watney, NESN has some big decisions to make in hiring replacements. What route they take, and how they carve out the shows around their new hires will go a long way in determining whether NESN will continue to be a place that fans only turn to for Red Sox and Bruins games, or a true, 24-hour regional sports network.