How To Improve Magic Coverage: Part Four

John Butler concludes his four-part series on how Magic coverage could improve by providing a list of quick fixes that will help boost coverage numbers.

In case you missed them, check out Part One, Part Two, and Part Three!

In this part, I am going to do my best to give a list of “quick fixes” that will help boost coverage numbers. Most of these can be implemented independently of my other recommendations throughout this series. Again, I restricted myself to suggestions that do not require WotC to spend a single additional dollar. It is my hope that even if the big changes described in the first three parts of my article are ignored that some of these suggestions may take root among the coverage personnel.

Quick Fixes: Commentators

Get a dress code. All commentators should dress the same, and it should be professional. At Pro Tours this is never a problem: every commentator is clean-shaven and wears a blazer. At GPs, it is a disaster. You can’t have this—it sends the message to your viewers that GPs aren’t important. If you go back and watch in the archives, you will find that the same exact commentators will show up to a GP unshaven wearing a fleece and then show up to a Pro Tour seven days later clean-shaven in a blazer. It doesn’t matter what event it is—if you show up to be on camera, look professional. Get a dress code for your commentary teams and enforce it.

Yelling to someone off camera that viewers cannot see is never acceptable. Ever. This includes things like “can we get that card up on screen?” You never or very rarely hear broadcasters in established media say “can I see a replay of that, Bob?” to someone the viewer can’t see. If the commentator wants a replay, he has non-verbal ways of communicating to the production staff that he wants a replay. Off-camera conversation is especially unacceptable when you scream “do we have another match?” to someone we can’t see, but it’s just as bad to talk to someone who we can’t see during the broadcast about anything.

Tweet, text, email—anything but talking to someone verbally that the viewer can’t see and has not yet been introduced to. Even something as small as saying “let’s get the life totals fixed” breaks the suspension of disbelief. Text, email, tweet—talk to your production staff in way that the viewer can’t hear or see. Short of a fire in the broadcast booth, there is never a good reason to talk to a non-commentator while live.

Protect your credibility with your life. The only thing you have as a Magic commentator to connect with the community is your credibility. You cannot ever purposefully disparage your credibility with the viewership audience.

Imagine if we went to a tight, tense, final putt on the 18th green at the Masters. Jim Nantz, the commentator, turns to Nick Faldo and says, “Ten foot putt, breaks slightly right to left, must be very tense for the player here.” Imagine if during this incredibly tense moment, Nantz had instead said, “Well, Nick, I have no idea how this putt breaks, which is why they are pros and not me,” followed by nervous laughter. It is completely irrelevant if the putt actually breaks left to right and he is wrong—the job of the commentator is to maintain the drama of the broadcast, not to be right / honest. It would totally 100% break the moment if he had punted the putt call.

Magic commentators do this quite frequently for some reason; when they feel overwhelmed and do not know what to say, they get nervous and tell the audience they have no idea what is going on and that the player is better than they are. I don’t know why this is such an issue in Magic, but commentators seem to have a complex about saying the wrong things on camera. If you take nothing else away from this article as a commentator, take away this:

It is a hundred times better to say the dead wrong thing with confidence and authority than it is to admit you don’t know what is going on.

There are numerous examples of commentators across all sorts of media who say silly things but are still on the air and still bring viewers because they sound like they know what they are talking about. Your average audience member is a lot closer to a new player than a tour player. If you say it with confidence, you’ll be fine. Do not volunteer anything that tends to hurt your credibility with your audience, who I assure you know much less about Magic than you think.

Silence or the wrong answer stated confidently is infinitely preferable to an admission that you don’t know what’s going on. All you have is credibility, and you don’t get points for honesty. If you don’t know the answer, change the subject, say something wrong with confidence—do anything at all other than just punt and tell the viewer you don’t know what’s going on. Once you do that, the viewer will never trust what you say again.

Don’t ask your broadcast partner questions; make statements. For example, if a commentator was to say to his broadcast partner, “Do you think Nelson should bolt the bird here?” it implies that the person posing the question is unsure, which is a credibility issue. A much better way to say that same phrase is “Nelson definitely has the option of bolting the bird here.” One is a question that implies you are unsure; one is a statement that conveys to the viewer you see that he could bolt the bird.

The second is infinitely preferable to the first—the first is in the passive voice, asking a question because it sounds like the commentator is unsure. The second is in the active voice and makes a definitive statement that the commentator is observant. However, both required the exact same level of knowledge—that bolting the bird is a legal possibility in the game.

Before you ask your partner a question, try to rephrase it as an active statement. We aren’t here to watch you learn about Magic; we are here to watch drama, and it’s your job to maintain a dramatic atmosphere.

Weak passive voice questions are the best way to make the viewer think you don’t know what you are talking about and to break dramatic atmosphere. You don’t hear football commentators say, “Bob, do you think they should pass here?” You hear them say, “Bob, passing here is definitely an option.” There is a world of difference, and you need to train yourself to always make statements in the active voice, not ask questions in the passive voice.

Get rid of Continuous Viewer Syndrome (CVS). CVS is a condition in green commentators where the commentator maintains the illusion in their mind that the audience is one continually listening individual. It is fairly common in broadcasters without experience, especially those who work in pairs, because they tend to forget they are broadcasting and instead are thinking about the conversation they are having. It is a critical shift of focus—you are not having a conversation with your broadcast partner that 3,000 people are listening to. You and your partner and talking to an ever-rotating audience of 3,000.

The former puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the commentators not to repeat themselves over eighteen hours, which is impossible. You can almost see people tying themselves into knots to think up something new and interesting to say. Over the course of a broadcast, the 3,000 people watching are probably changing by 60-70% every two or three hours. As a result, it is perfectly fine to repeat yourself over and over. In fact, repetition is infinitely preferable to nonsense.

Promote next week’s event during this week’s broadcast over and over and over and over. You have a free promotional platform to an audience you know is interested. Promote the hell out of your events during the broadcast. Keep track—mention next week’s event literally every five-to-ten minutes. Just a simple “Remember folks, next week we’ll be in Vegas for Modern Masters Limited. Join us for coverage Saturday at 10:30. Going back to our match…” Again, the 6,000 viewers you see at any one time is probably 15,000-20,000 individual people over the course of a day drifting in and out of the Twitch channel. Promote your events! We should never ever have a Grand Prix Sunday where the next week’s event is mentioned less than 40-80 times over the course of the broadcast.

Rewatch your broadcasts and keep statistics. This is the only way to improve as a broadcaster. Keep a count of number of times you admitted you didn’t know something, the number of times you phrased a passive question instead of an active statement, the number of times you mentioned next week’s event. In broadcasting, you cannot improve what you cannot measure. Rewatch all your broadcasts at least once to make sure you are improving. You should see the passive questions go down over time and the promotion go up. Really, this should be the job of WotC to keep these statistics, but in the absence of WotC policing every word the commentators say (which it should do, as discussed in Part Three) you should do it yourself. Keep your statistics so that you improve.

Quick Fixes: Producers

Start all coverage at the same time every weekend—the time you announce it will start. There is no excuse for this. Your viewers need to know when your stream goes live no matter what—the PGA Tour goes live at 1 PM Saturday and 2 PM Sunday. The underlying tournament is completely irrelevant. Sometimes your start time will be early and you will have some air to fill using our production notes from Part Three. Sometimes your start time will be late and you will start covering in round 3. However, the start time must be consistent. You can’t advertise a start on your website at 10:30 AM and go live at 11:15.

Imagine a casual viewer deciding to grab some coffee and check out Magic coverage at 10:30 AM getting a blank screen and a blinking “offline”—they don’t come back. If you aren’t going to start at 10:30 AM, have the decency to go to your channel and tell the viewers that. Nothing enrages a casual fan more than wasting their time. Go to the Twitch channel for the start of the next Grand Prix at the advertised time, read the chat messages asking when the coverage will start, and watch the viewers drift away. If you know that you will be absolutely ready to start no matter what at 1 PM, start at 1. Your start time is a sacred trust between what you advertise and when you start. If you can’t get this right, there is little hope of getting anything else right. 10:30 is 10:30. 10:30 isn’t 11, or 11:30, or 10:29, or 10:31. 10:30 is 10:30.

Shut the chat off. There is no reason to have it on. All you are doing is giving trolls the chance to second-guess your commentators. There is no benefit at all to it—you can’t actually talk because the messages go so fast. You can absolutely do something like a Twitter hashtag that runs somewhere else or even a chat room on WotC’s website. But get it off the screen where casuals see it. All you are doing is allowing idiots to second-guess your commentators, which makes them feel insecure, which leads to credibility confessions (discussed above). Shut down the chat. No point, only damage.

Either give us the technology at all the events or at none. This is counterintuitive—you would think it’d better to give it to us at certain events rather than none, but that isn’t how human viewers react when you take away their toys. Imagine if the only time you saw the yellow “first down” line during football telecasts was at the Super Bowl. People wouldn’t be excited to have it during the Super Bowl; they would be upset at not having it during regular games. If you are going to implement technology like being able to see the player’s hands, you simply cannot only have it at PTs. You cannot build an audience that way. I know what WotC is thinking—better at the PT than not at all—but nobody who is actually in the broadcast industry would allow that.

You cannot have a letdown between PTs and GPs—three times more people watch Pro Tours, and you need them to tune into Grand Prixs and have a consistent experience. You can’t have Pro Tour production level one place and Grand Prix production level somewhere else because you are building disappointment into your system. The entire goal is to get someone who tunes in for a Pro Tour to come back for the Grand Prix, and you are basically building a land mine into your broadcast because when that viewer comes back they are bound to be disappointed at the lack of the hands feature. Either give it to us all the time always or get rid of it completely.

Most importantly, at Grand Prix details matter. I would be very, very surprised to find out the same producers who work the Pro Tour work Grand Prix. The production at Pro Tours is excellent even by broadcast industry standards—there are virtually no mistakes, no talking off camera, the feature matches run smoothly into the interviews which run smoothly into the features. Please note I am not talking about production value but small mistakes.

The Pro Tour stream is never mislabeled—the GP stream is constantly mislabeled. There is never a time at a Pro Tour when the commentators want a life total fixed or to clarify a judge call and it takes forever or doesn’t happen. Often at Grand Prix the commentators will request something that just never happens. Because of the three to one rule, you need to realize as producers that GP audiences drive PT audiences. If the production staff takes nothing else away, I hope it takes that away:

You cannot grow your PT audience independent of your GP audience. It doesn’t work.

There are too many small mistakes at GPs to list here, but they include the Twitch title, life totals, player names, clarifying judge calls, giving the right decklists to the commentary team—basically, if you go back and watch a GP broadcast, there are a lot of small mistakes. There is constant talking off camera during GP events. Produce GP events like you are producing PT events when it comes to details and small mistakes. Of course, we won’t get overhead deck techs and so forth at Grand Prix—that’s not what I mean—but we can fix the shouting off camera, the mislabeled Twitch stream, etc. that only seems to exist at GPs.

Quick Fixes: WotC

Have a channel for your Pro Tour. Have a channel for your Beta Q&As. Never ever allow those channels to cross. You cannot show nonsense on the same channel as marquee events and expect viewers not to get confused between the two.

Get a way to tell us who the best player in the world is at any given time. Right now, you can’t do that because your points reset so fast and for about a third of the “season” there are people who are really solid pros who don’t have any (or very few) points. Conversely, the #1 player in the world is the guy who wins the first GP after the reset?! That’s silly. It doesn’t need to be my system from Part Three, but you need a system that can tell the fans who the best players are in ranked order. Without it, Platinum is a bunch of guys doing the Magic equivalent of grinding StarCraft against the computer (an arbitrary standard of points, not head-to-head). That isn’t exciting. If you aren’t going to use my system, use some system that allows you to tell us who is the best at any given time.

Set your sights higher. Your game has ten million players. Attracting 2300 or 4000 to a GP is not impressive. We think it is because it is a first for Magic, but it really isn’t—any other industry with a 10m base would be very upset at attracting such low numbers to coverage and tournaments. You need to avoid becoming too linear—it is easy to tell yourself the results are good when all you do is compare it to how Magic has worked in the past.

The correct comparison, as we discussed in Part One, is not Magic in 2012 to Magic in 2009. The correct comparison is what percentage of Magic players watch and / or attend Organized Play tournaments. I do not think .01% is acceptable. The standards need to be drastically increased. This is similar to a stockbroker being proud that he made a 5% return when the market gained 10%. A rising tide lifts all boats, so it is easy to “hide” behind the success that is coming simply because the game is growing.

In order for Organized Play to be doing an acceptable job growing the game, it must grow at a faster rate than the natural growth of the game. If Organized Play isn’t keeping pace with the organic growth of Magic, we must conclude that OP issues are driving players away (otherwise we would see a rise in OP activity proportionate to the rise in people playing as a whole). OP should be at the very minimum keeping pace with the growth of the game as a percentage. I’ve already talked about this throughout the series, but I also believe attendance numbers should be completely ignored in favor of coverage numbers. You have ten million players—that is enough for a legitimate tour, but only if you commit to a standard of acceptability way higher than what we have right now.

Humans vote with their feet. What matters is how many viewers you get. Period.