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Sports on TV: Looking Back at 2009

The recession kept TV sports from experimenting with much pricey innovation in 2009.

And the sports world's biggest off-field story - Tiger Woods' travails - was neither propelled nor even much-discussed on TV sports.

But 2009 deserves more than just good riddance. Some picks 'n' pans before we're doomed to repeat history because we've forgotten it:

Best ideas: Earlier starting times for World Series games not only helped ratings, even as the Major League Baseball postseason ran especially long, it proved obviously smart moves will happen if you wait long enough. Meaning, depending on your projected life expectancy, you might live to see a World Series day game or the demise of college football's BCS.

The NFL this season offered an NFL RedZone channel to cable TV operators that, like satellite TV's Red Zone Channel, switches viewers between live NFL games when teams are in scoring position. Although a frontal assault on Sunday sports-bar business, such coverage strikes a historic blow for viewer freedom.

MLB Network's debut brought more than just another sport-specific channel. Fans got lots of live look-ins on games and Bob Costas@ got a venue to talk baseball.

Voracious ESPN, always looking for new ways to slice and dice its content to suit various appetites, got a jump on other big media companies by starting localized sports websites - so far in Chicago, Boston, Dallas and Los Angeles - that have left the local sports media in cities likely to be targeted wondering whether they should fight or somehow defect.

Improved: As other NFL studio shows largely stood pat, NBC's always-evolving Sunday night show added thoughtful Tony Dungy@ and promising TV rookie Rodney Harrison@ and freed Costas to go to game sites. (Looking ahead to NBC's 2010 Vancouver Olympic coverage, Costas shouldn't be tethered to his anchor chair there.)

Promising: NBC assigned Al Michaels, who hasn't worked Olympic TV since ABC's 1988 Calgary Games, to host its weekend and weekday daytime Vancouver coverage. He could boost viewer interest by making a public guarantee he'll utter another on-air Olympic line that will be remembered for decades. Just an idea. 

No, consumers don't usually like long-form online video. But Fox's TV-like weekday online shows, using its on-air names such as Brian Billick and Jay Glazer, suggest networks should do more experiments with online sports video that approaches the depth of TV sports. It's not like that bar is set all that high.

Setbacks: In the first NFL season since the leather-helmet era that didn't include John Madden, life went on. Madden is enjoying retirement. His already-proven replacement, Cris Collinsworth, is more than just the guy who replaced The Guy. But enough already, John, get back on the bus. 

In CBS' first NCAA Final Four without Billy Packer ruminating courtside, his successor, Clark Kellogg, was fine. But without Packer, viewers were left with no one they could at least occasionally love to hate.

Breakthroughs: Including Howard Stern sidekick Artie Lange on the debut of Joe Buck's HBO show produced cringe-worthy TV. But it also set some kind of TV speed record for attracting rubberneckers. Imagine if Lange had also been pantless. 

President Obama revealing his NCAA tournament basketball brackets on ESPN will be noted by future historians as one of the early developments that eventually led U.S. presidents to routinely have their own live blogs during Final Fours.

Fox cast Digger, an animated gopher character, in its own little cartoons during NASCAR coverage. Not all NASCAR fans found that edifying. But look who's wearing sunglasses at night now. Digger appears in a Fox film opening today - Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel - and depending on its box office might be assigned to Fox's NASCAR booth next year.

Biggest comeback: A year ago, Matt Millen had been fired from overseeing a team - the Detroit Lions - that went winless. But Millen went on to pop up on NBC's Super Bowl coverage, then was hired by ESPN for college games and NFL pregames and by NFL Network for its games. There's no business like show business. And Millen, who seems more tentative than during his first go-round on TV, should now feel free to spout off on-air.

Avoidable: During MLB's postseason, lots of teams' announcers would be available to call games. And TBS, which doesn't cover much regular-season MLB action, uses some of them on its playoff coverage. So it shouldn't have been a huge deal to have replaced Chip Caray, who had a rocky 2008 postseason, before he turned in an on-air performance this fall that didn't make anybody look good. Caray went his separate way - to Fox Sports Net this week, hired to call Atlanta Braves games for Fox Sports South.

Did you notice? Stephen A. Smith left ESPN to pursue other career opportunities. After various on-air cameos, he recently signed with Fox Sports Radio

 The United Football League debuted on Versus. Yes, this year.

There were lots of sports-themed reality shows - such as Shaquille O'Neal's - that were little noted nor long remembered. But 2010 will have one, already underway and loosely based on Survivor, that will be a blockbuster across various networks: the Tiger Woods obstacle course.

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