Last night, Showtime aired the first installment of The Franchise: A Season with the San Francisco Giants, a look inside the lives and clubhouse of our defending World Series champions. The 30-minute premiere acted as preview for the series, which doesn't technically start until July 13. (It's a strategy similar to what Fox tried with Glee, except, as far as I've heard, no current Giants are going to follow Omar Vizquel's lead and cover the Goo Goo Dolls.)
Since it was announced, The Franchise has been considered a baseball version of HBO's popular Hard Knocks, a long-running series that has taken viewers inside one NFL training camp each season. In truth, it has more in common with ESPN's The Association: Boston Celtics, a series that follows one of the NBA's marquee franchises during the season. (Showtime and MLB Productions have claimed The Franchise is a wholly original idea because they want to be seen as cutting-edge programmers. But everyone has already made at least one of these connections, and it's hard to take the network that puts dozens of softcore films on demand and airs a show called Secret Diary of a Call Girl too seriously.)
Put simply, these series are versions of "celebreality" with extremely high production values for the medium and no appearances from a drunk Janice Dickinson. And the clear goal of The Franchise is to help solve the league's greater marketing problem: to make these athletes relatable and to tell their stories in ways that resonate with the sport's casual fans.
Because, in all honesty, this series isn't for Giants fans. Major League Baseball has trouble marketing its biggest stars to casual fans, and not in the sense that everyone thinks every player is taking bovine steroids. Instead, the biggest problem facing MLB is that casual sports fans don't know anything about any of the players.
Apart from New York Yankees stars like Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez and The Natural-esque Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton, few modern baseball stars are visible in the larger culture. When 60 Minutes ran a feature on St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols this Sunday, it spent most of the feature coming up with different ways to say that he was a historically impressive hitter. Never mind that, in another era, Pujols would have been a national celebrity.
Showtime can afford to skew the series away from diehard Giants fans like me and others around the Bay Area. We're going to tune in anyway, because we like to see our favorite players on a major pay-cable network where everyone can watch them. By all accounts, Showtime was given incredible access during spring training, and fans will want to get close to their heroes in a way that isn't possible through newspapers or CSN Bay Area. But to get our repeat business, Showtime and MLB have to prove that they won't skew these stories for laypeople, and that they'll stay true to the stories people in the Bay Area have encountered repeatedly through local media. It can't be a hatchet job, but it also can't be a bunch of maudlin bullshit.
Last night's episode, thankfully, was broad enough to appeal to casual fans and true to what fans already know about the team. As a precursor to the series as a whole, the preview focuses mainly on setting the stage and introducing the audience to some of the team's most important figures.