You Make the Call

by Kenneth B. Lourie

If youíve been watching some of the same sports programming as I have lately - ESPN Sports Center, American and National League Championship series and the World Series - perhaps youíve noticed a rather intrusive and interactive product placement.

Sprint has a new Internet-ready cellular phone - Sprint PCS Vision - on the market and is promoting its use on, and seemingly as a key component of, these broadcasts. At various times, in conjunction with the unfolding story lines - should the manager take out the pitcher, as one example - the broadcaster will literally ask viewers a question; a question only those viewers with this new Sprint phone can answer (technologically speaking), and then refer us all to the bottom of the television screen.

There, moments later, space bars will appear and proportionately fill with color (yellow most recently) left to right, followed by a percentage amount to reflect the responsiveness and opinions of those Sprint PCS Vision phone holders (and know-how-to-users). Dare I say, not the most accurate of measurements.

At first, the gathering of opinions across the Sprint PCS Vision phone-holding public seemed harmless enough. I mean, we are in an election year, so opinion polls are hardly unusual. But their extension and intrusion into prime time baseball seemed to cross the line from fair into foul territory.

By the time viewers had been asked for the third and fourth time, in one game, to use their Sprint phone to express their opinions - and in essence to interact with the broadcast - a pattern became clear, to me anyhow. A pattern where the product - the Sprint phone - became as important as its placement.

Thatís when I decided to express this opinion publicly. Itís the World Series, stupid - not the sponsor-motivated and manipulated exposure of a new product that I want to see.

Look, I understand that opinion polls donít grow on journalists; they have to be bought and paid for (the opinion polls, not the journalists). As such, there are lots of co-sponsors of such polls - The Washington Post/ABC News, CNN/Time, Associated Press/NBC News, as a few examples - to offset the cost of sampling public opinion on the issues of the day; issues such as the potential war with Iraq, that might affect the quality, and quite frankly, the safety of my life. But baseball questions, during the actual broadcast? I donít think so. Itís marketing, pure and simple.

I donít care whether 150,000 Sprint VCS Vision-phoners think Dusty Baker, the manager of the San Francisco Giants, should replace pitcher Jason Schmidt with two outs in the top of the fifth inning in game five. I only care what Dusty Baker actually does do. As another example (asked on Sports Center), I could care less who these cellular phone interactors think - eight games or so into the college football season - will win the HeismanTrophy. I only care whose name is actually announced in early December when the presentation is made at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City. Anything else is speculation, and in point of fact, basically nothing more than marketing blather.

Believe me, I understand, television programming isnít free, especially cable, since I pay for it every month. I realize there have to be commercial breaks; various sponsorships for player of the game, hit of the game, catch of the game, name of the stadium, etc. But I draw the line at having to use the product advertised to participate and/or assist in its promotion without my approval.

Next time, donít include my television in your promotion. Get my business the old-fashioned way. Earn it!

Lourie is a regionally syndicated columnist who resides in Burtonsville, MD.