Welcome to the dead zone, that depressing stretch when even a sports junkie begins to favor a la carte cable pricing. Suddenly, it’s easy to resent those hefty ESPN and Fox Sports subscriber fees, faced with lineups of strongest-man competitions, “The World Darts Championships” and other cheap time-fillers designed only for those too hung over to change channels.

The NBA and NHL playoffs are over and football doesn’t begin in earnest until September, which is when baseball pennant races finally get interesting. Still, a closer inspection reveals that there will be plenty of sports this summer — as pundits debate who’s in the lead, who’s scored key points and who might stage a late rally to close a big deficit. It’s only that the discussion has shifted from the court to the courts, from corporately sponsored arenas to crowded convention centers.

Televised sports have increasingly drifted into soap opera, but their formula has found a media haven in TV’s approach to politics and trials. CNN and Court TV figure to blanket Kobe Bryant’s rape case more closely than the Detroit Pistons covered the Lakers star, and though the trial likely won’t start until the fall, there’s ample court action to follow. Meanwhile, the media continues to juggle those other tentpoles of tabloid titillation, Michael Jackson and Scott Peterson as well as the few lingering embers of Martha Stewart’s case.

“I think this case is dead even at this point,” professor/Fox News analyst/color commentator Stan Goldman told L.A.’s KTTV on June 23 regarding Peterson’s trial, adding that the prosecution is “on the defensive already.” Knowing how boring defensive struggles can be, Goldman did helpfully say that viewers could “expect fireworks today.”

Shifting to the political derby, since the advent of cable news the “SportsCenter”-like analysis never really subsides. As the conventions and election near, look for plenty of “what if” scenarios and poll watching (plus or minus 3%), usually at the expense of anything that resembles discussion of policy or differences separating the candidates.

Thoughtful coverage is deemed so anathema to mainstream news outlets that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) recently threatened broadcasters with renewing the push for granting candidates free airtime. His rationale included a study of the 2002 midterm election by USC’s Norman Lear Center and the U. of Wisconsin, which found that more than half of local newscasts featured no political coverage at all. Within those that did, 47% of stories focused on the strategic or “horse race” aspects of the campaign, while less than a quarter dealt with substantive issues.

Stung by the contention that such reporting doesn’t assist voters in making informed choices, the National Assn. of Broadcasters cited its own research indicating the public is satisfied with TV and radio coverage. A spokesman went on to suggest that there is “a real disconnect between some of the Washington insiders and what real-life voters think.”

True enough about the disconnected part, unless all that porn is watching itself. Speaking as a “real-life voter,” though, the only people with cause to applaud local political coverage are A) those who don’t give a rip, and B) those who have placed bets on the election that involve getting or giving percentage points.

Sports metaphors provide a lazy way to strain complex matters through a familiar media filter. In essence, it’s the strategy networks employ with their new “reality” shows, which draw heavily from the ghosts of movies and TV shows past, whether it’s “Green Acres” in short skirts (a.k.a. “The Simple Life”) or plans for an unscripted “real” version of “Gilligan’s Island.”

Indeed, the more I think about it, the only things seldom covered as if they were sporting events these days are — you guessed it — sports. Instead, they have to be treated with a level of importance normally reserved for inaugurations — in part because of the vast license fees networks pay, but mostly because too many sports writers and announcers are either frustrated comedians or think of themselves as Ernest Hemingway.

In this environment, play by play is out and bombast is in. Nowhere has the shift been more jolting than Los Angeles, where those spoiled by the late Lakers announcer Chick Hearn had to endure obnoxious radio replacement Joel Meyers, an aggressive home-team partisan who rants about referees’ blown calls and frequently berates players.

Even the Olympics have long since been shanghaied, weighed down by “up close and personal” segments meant to entice sports-phobic women who wouldn’t know a baton from a styling wand (sorry, but it isn’t my stereotype). Flag-waving crosses gender lines to a degree, but the assumption is the ladies will only care about who wins events if over-produced, “Oprah”-like drama precedes them.

Adoption of this horse-race mentality has created a clear public-relations windfall for lawyers, political analysts and midlevel party hacks, commanding time in a media spotlight that riffles through talking heads faster than Jennifer Lopez dispenses with potential husbands. If nothing else, it keeps these chattering classes out of neighborhood bars and in TV studios, where they at least have each other to shout at and annoy.

By the way, J.Lo and that Marc Anthony guy? The pundits and early polls give the relationship 10 months, plus or minus 3%.

PRODUCT PLACEMENT: A few weeks ago I made an entirely off-hand (and not especially flattering) reference to Guthy-Renker, the infomercial powerhouse.

So imagine my surprise when a package showed up with a DVD set of “The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts,” courtesy of — you guessed it — the grateful folks at Guthy-Renker. In the infomercial realm, apparently even semi-snarky recognition is much appreciated.

The last thing I’d want to do, of course, is encourage this sort of behavior — a thought that came to mind the other day as I admired the sleek curves of the Mercedes-Benz CL500 Coupe.

Gee, now I know how grimy “American Idol” contestants must feel during their “Ford Focus” moments.

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