Watching the Stanley Cup playoffs on Versus is like watching a community theater production of "Les Miserables." The source material's emotional potency and the magnetic qualities of its aesthetics make it, at a minimum, eminently enjoyable.
Then some local dentist comes on stage, sings "Master of the House" like Wilfred Brimley with a bran muffin stuffed in his mouth, and you suddenly remember you're not exactly on Broadway.
There have been some spectacular highs and lows for the NHL's cable partners this postseason. For example, the ratings on Game 2 of the Washington Capitals vs. Pittsburgh Penguins semifinal were extraordinary: The highest rated semifinal game since 2002, and a night on which Versus was the highest rated network in Pittsburgh.
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On the flip side, fan angst is reaching the boiling point regarding the network's exclusivity for certain games, and the way has affected viewership. From George James Malik of Snapshots, spouting off about the coverage on last night's 6-3 win for the Detroit Red Wings over the Anaheim Ducks:
Fans who did not live in the immediate Metro Detroit or Anaheim areas had to watch the Chicago Blackhawks play the Vancouver Canucks for a mercifully short ten minutes of the first period, and there were numerous complaints of HD blackouts which occurred in ramshackle fashion. No NHL Network, NHL GameCenter Live was blacked out in both the U.S. and Canada...
Unprofessional and unreal in terms of not announcing that they'd even switch to the Red Wings game until all of half an hour before game time.
More from Kukla. Malik gives Versus an 'F', at least for last night, which got us thinking: How would those of us who are seeing the majority of our playoff hockey on Versus grade the network's overall Stanley Cup playoff coverage thus far? (Note for RSS readers - here be a poll, mateys.)
What Works on Versus
The totality of its coverage. For all of you ESPN loyalists, know this: There is absolutely zero chance that the WWL would have provided fans with the amount of hockey hours per night that Versus does.
We can bitch and moan about what the network didn't give fans during the regular season, because those gripes are valid; but they've turned over their prime time to hockey until well into the next morning on nearly every night. That's commendable.
The color commentators. In speaking with a few dozen fans during the playoffs, there's one name that keeps coming up: Daryl Reaugh, the Dallas Stars broadcaster and goofball blogger who may just be the best voice for the NHL in this postseason. Insightful without being too obtrusive or condescending, witty without venturing into Pierre McGuire catchphrase-ville; but above all else, the dude understands the narrative of a hockey game. His work on Game 3 between the Caps and Pens was remarkable.
As Steve Lepore points out, Darren Eliot's no slouch either, and shares many of the same qualities that Reaugh has. Must be a goalie thing. In a perfect world, both of these guys would sound like they're from South Philly or Chicago. But beggers, choosers, what have you ...
The new scoreboard: Could it be a little smaller? Probably, when you're not watching the game in HD. But it looks spiffy.
What Doesn't Work on Versus
The studio show. In speaking with an avowed NBA lover yesterday, it's clear that the gold standard for a sports studio show remains the TNT snark-fest with Charles Barkley. And that's because it's a bunch of guys talking about basketball with little regard for over-explaining things to the general audience. They're speaking to themselves, and then to the fans. It's great television.
If only Versus had a set of stones to do the same thing. Instead, we get stone-faced Keith Jones and Brian Engblom passing along piffle and giving superficial analysis that rarely taps into the emotional and narrative joys of the game. The one time Jones popped off this postseason -- the Mike Brown hit on Jiri Hudler(notes) -- was a conversation-starting shock to the system. You wish you could see more of that.
The sometimes clunky production. There are still moments when the game broadcasts veer into amateur hour: Missed penalty calls, commercial breaks at awkward moments, controversial plays that never get re-examined. Broadcasters and interviewers missing a cue happens all over sports television; but do we really need to cram the Waste Management trivia question in during the action, as was the case in Game 3 in Pittsburgh, because it didn't get mentioned during a stoppage?
Finally, despite all the claims to the contrary, Versus still doesn't have the reach other cable alternatives do. Michael Hiestand of USA TODAY breaks it down today:
Versus, which outbid ESPN for the NHL, is in about 75 million households. ESPN is in 98 million. Compared to ESPN's last NHL season - 2003-04 - Versus' household average for regular season games this season is down about 43%. And compared to this point in ESPN's last playoffs, Versus current playoff households are down about 35%.
And consider other sports on ESPN whose average household ratings top Versus' current NHL playoff average: The College World Series (1.1 million households), pro bowling (672,000 households) and Little League World Series (582,000 households).
Whether that's an argument for a return to ESPN is your call. We see this as an argument that despite the NHL's draw as a property during the Stanley Cup playoffs, they're an oasis on a network that's only other ratings engine is an annual bicycle race.
Honestly: How much Versus are you watching other than for hockey? The answer probably isn't good news for the network, or conversely for the NHL.
We'd give Versus an A-minus for effort, and a 'C' for execution. So that would be a 'B' overall.