Marquee’s mistake puts it in a deeper hole

To Cubs fans, the network, created as an additional revenue stream, has had negative connotations since its inception. After it removed critical commentary from “The Reporters” on Sunday, Marquee now has a credibility problem.

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The Cubs have given us lots of memorable rhetoric that has come back to bite them. Remember when business president Crane Kenney said in 2015 that his job was to “fill a wheelbarrow with money” and dump it in former baseball president Theo Epstein’s office? That wheelbarrow is still in storage.

Another good one came at the 2020 Cubs Convention, where chairman Tom Ricketts had a revealing exchange with fans. Trying to drum up excitement for the launch of Marquee Sports Network, he told the crowd, “Our promise for the next 10 years is to continue to have the best relationship with our fans of any professional sports team in the world. And that starts with the Marquee Network.”

The message wasn’t well received. There were boos, prompting Ricketts to ask, “What do you have against Marquee Network?” The boos continued, and Ricketts said, “Believe me, you won’t be booing about the Marquee Network in one year.”

How about two years?

Marquee is facing backlash from a misguided decision Sunday to remove commentary from the weekly show “The Reporters” it deemed critical of the Cubs’ … what’s the word … we can’t say “rebuild” so … we’ll call it “roster reconfiguring.” The panel was discussing baseball president Jed Hoyer’s lack of … wait, we can’t say “transparency,” either … let’s go with “truthfulness” … about what exactly he’s doing with the team.

The first four episodes of the show were prerecorded, allowing Marquee to remove the inappropriate content, although it was done under false pretense. A producer claimed technical difficulties were to blame. And since the four guests already had stopped talking, they were asked not to continue the discussion when recording resumed.

When questioned about the matter, Marquee responded appropriately, saying the show would air live, starting with the next episode Sunday, to prevent such decisions from being made.

“A judgment was made on the fly that in retrospect was overly sensitive,” network general manager Mike McCarthy said Tuesday. “But this is not a Cubs management-Marquee management swath across the bow that no one’s ever critical of the Cubs because that’s not the case in this show’s brief history. And it won’t be going forward.”

That’s all well and good, but Marquee is more than this show. There are pregame and postgame shows. Perhaps a trade-deadline show. Now all of that content comes into question because it puts the network’s culture under the microscope.

Why would a producer’s ears perk up with a discussion of transparency if there wasn’t a message sent to be alert for the topic? The producer had a feeling that wouldn’t fly with the higher-ups and made the unusual move of stopping production.

The show that “The Reporters” is based on, “The Sports Writers on TV” from the 1980s and 90s, never had such a problem.

“In 500-plus shows, I do not remember ever being censored for speaking out on controversial topics or criticizing any team and their ownership or management,” Sun-Times columnist and regular “Sports Writers” panelist Rick Telander said. “Including Tribune Company, Jerry Reinsdorf, Bill Wirtz, Michael McCaskey, et al. We let ’er rip.

“We tried to always be reasonable and fair but always impassioned. Producer John Roach never intruded over an opinion. Neither did the terrific station manager, Jim Corno. If they’d tried to get us to lay off a team, there would have been a revolt, possibly fisticuffs. [Panelist Bill] Gleason was a World War II infantryman. He didn’t care.”

“The Sports Writers on TV” aired mostly on SportsChannel, a precursor to NBC Sports Chicago that carried the Blackhawks, Bulls and White Sox.

“The Reporters” has had some critical commentary on the Cubs. In its first episode May 1, the panel talked about the team’s overall poor play and how most of its success had come against the equally-lowly Pirates. There was no hiding that.

But a nerve might have been touched in the Cubs’ executive branch when, in the third episode, The Athletic’s Jon Greenberg said, “I know Jed doesn’t want us to call it a rebuild. He might come in here and hit the censor button on me.”

That’s what happened on the next episode, but Hoyer wasn’t on the set.

If Marquee is going to create a spin-off of a beloved show that had endearing personalities and lively discussion, the network can’t desecrate it by operating contrary to its spirit.

To Cubs fans, Marquee has had negative connotations since its inception. After being able to watch the team for free on WGN for decades, they adjusted to more and more games moving to cable. But with three other teams included, it was still a good deal.

That changed when the Cubs went out on their own. Granted, fans don’t have to search for the correct channel anymore, but they are paying more for that convenience. Marquee was created as another wheelbarrow … oops, revenue stream.

Fans are hurt by that, as well as the dissolution of a relationship with WGN that has lessened the stature of the station and the Cubs. What happened on “The Reporters” only adds to that.

Marquee will have a harder time finding panelists after the Sun-Times said its reporters are no longer permitted to appear. The show is a noble effort to connect the network to the city’s past, but it will take time — and transparency — to make that connection real.

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