Networks starting to steer racers toward danger

It’s OK when a TV network has microphones in a dugout or on a football sideline to pick up ambient sound. But when does listening in go over the line?

I’ve squirmed in recent years as ESPN and Fox baseball producers have miked managers during games, asking predictably soft questions. The managers don’t really like it and never say anything worthwhile. It’s a 9 on the uncomfortableness meter.

But TNT went a step further Sunday, crossing the Rubicon of the racetrack as it were during a NASCAR Nextel Cup event. Kyle Petty was miked while in a road race in Sonoma, Calif. No sooner did he put on the live mike than he was involved in a crash as Matt Kenseth dived inside him on a turn.

"What the (expletive) was that?" viewers heard someone shout over the live feed.

It was uncertain who uttered the obscenity — it could have come from a Petty crew member or anybody on the same frequency. TNT’s Bill Weber quickly apologized for it, and Kenseth and Petty kept racing. But the larger point was whether Petty’s dividing his attention between his announcing and driving duties contributed to the crash.

TNT, in a NASCAR ratings war with ESPN, crossed the line on this one.

What’s next? Having first basemen miked as they talk about the weather while holding runners at the bag? And what will an Indy 500 driver’s fatal accident sound like?

HBO BOXING — Larry Merchant, the HBO commentator who has lost his fastball, was missing from the network’s telecast of Ricky Hatton’s four-round demolition of Jose Luis Castillo at the Thomas & Mack Center on Saturday night.

Merchant is obviously being pushed toward the door. Former Review-Journal boxing writer Kevin Iole recently wrote on Yahoo.com that Ross Greenburg, president of HBO Sports, has made Max Kellerman the lead analyst on all major telecasts. Merchant and HBO now have a "mutual option" deal for him to appear. In other words, "If we don’t want you, sayonara."

I was content to see Merchant gone, but Kellerman, who appeared anxious, shrill and bug-eyed, was hardly an improvement and blew his assessment of the fight.

Kellerman, Round 2: "The biggest question for Hatton, so active now, is how will he finish? Everybody knew he could start fast. Castillo performs well down the stretch, so the question is there."

But Emanuel Steward, the ex-trainer, had already seen something. "That won’t be a factor because of the speed differential," he said. "Castillo is just too slow. He looks like an old man to me tonight. I don’t care what he’s done in the past. His legs is gone."

When Hatton finished Castillo off, Kellerman had to throw up his hands. "Those who said going into this fight that Castillo was shot, they look pretty smart right now," he said lamely. Not the most scintillating debut.

PET PEEVE — I see this more and more on the tube and it’s driving me nuts.

Watching a Red Sox-Braves game on ESPN from Atlanta last week, I could hardly avoid noticing a man in a Sox shirt and cap sitting with a boy who was hopefully his son in the first row behind the Boston dugout. Having figured out where the camera was that shot right-handed batters when they came to home plate, he constantly preened for it — waving, pointing, mugging and ordering his poor kid to do the same.

Now for all I know, this bloke could have been a Braves season-ticket holder. But I doubt it. He probably bought the tickets on eBay and flew down from Boston to get on television.

Get a life, people! Have we become a nation of "Hi, Mom!" exhibitionists? Is a fleeting moment of TV exposure the ultimate value of life? Oh, and after he preened for an inning and a half he switched to his cell phone. Michael Moore’s new movie is named "Sicko." It should have been about TV attention seekers like these.

RATINGS — Not all sports are going the way of the NBA and the NHL in the numbers. The NFL still reigns supreme, and baseball is doing well, thank you.

A recent report said five NFL games last season had more viewers than "American Idol," the most-watched May 2007 season finale, and 15 games finished ahead of "Dancing With the Stars" and "Grey’s Anatomy," the second- and third-most-watched finales.

Meanwhile, ESPN’s "Sunday Night Baseball" rating is up 32 percent (2.5 versus 1.6) over last year.

Bill Taaffe is a former award-winning TV-radio sports columnist for Sports Illustrated. His column is published on Tuesday. He can be reached at taaffe-reviewjournal@earthlink.net.

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