Sunday, November 6, 2005

It's the Game, You Dolts!

Television is a visual medium. They show you...and they show you and show you and show you. -- Shelley Berman

I used to be a sports nut. I followed baseball, football, hockey, and basketball. Heck, I'd watch indoor lacrosse if nothing else was available. I spent most fall weekends glued to the tube watching football, watched hockey every Saturday night (on that Canadian institution Hockey Night In Canada), and caught any baseball game that was on.

That may sound like a lot, but here's what it boiled down to pre-1970. On Saturdays, there were one or possibly two college football games on. When the college season wrapped up in November, a single NFL game was on. Sundays featured a local NFL team's game (if it wasn't a blacked out home game) and a national game. Hockey, as previously mentioned was a single game on Saturday night. Baseball was a Saturday and Sunday affair, with perhaps five or ten weeknight games broadcast over the course of a season.

Today, of course, we have some sort of major sport, college or professional, on virtually every night of the week. Strangely, though, I watch less sports now than I ever have. The “why” of that has nothing to do with the glut of broadcasts; rather it's the nature of sports broadcasts these days that has me turned off.

Back in the 1950's when I was growing up, a lot of our sports came on radio. Radio announcers have to develop the knack of describing all the action while letting some of the atmosphere of the game come over the air. So, despite the audio medium, announcers learned to shut up now and then and let the stadium sounds tell the story. Many of these radio people moved to TV, where they could be even more sparing in their commentary. They gave you the information you craved (batter's stats, how many yards the fullback had gained so far), but they could let the pictures tell the story with a minimum of yak. Vin Sculley, an man who could bring poetry to a description of a golfer walking up the eighteenth fairway, was the best of this generation. Take for example Kirk Gibson's World Series home run. When it left the bat, Sculley said nothing. He let the crowd sounds and the pictures of the players tell the story. It was a great moment, made even more enjoyable by Sculley's genius for knowing when not to talk.

Right up into the 1970's, sports were fun to watch on TV. But, then, one sad Monday night in 1970, it all began to change.

It wasn't putting football on Monday night that was bad; it was adding Howard Cosell and a host of morons, chief of which would be Don Meredith to the booth. Suddenly, the action on the game became secondary to who Howard had lunch with, how Howard had predicted what just happened earlier in the broadcast (even if he had predicted exactly the opposite), and when Dandy Don was going to sing.

From those humble beginnings, the personalities in the booth began to be more important than the game they were covering. Monday Night Baseball fought back with movie and TV celebrities appearing as “color commentators”. While George C. Scott did show himself to be knowledgeable about baseball and one heck of Tigers fan, most of them were dismal. But the foot of irrelevance was in the door. Instead of paying attention to the game, announcers were conducting phone interviews or talking about where the best food was or about some “big story” that was completely unrelated to the game at hand.

And now has come the graphics revolution. The screen is already messier than the average computer terminal, with a score bar at the top, the scores from other games at the bottom, player stats above the score from other games, and side bars with other information we didn't care about cramping the screen down to where it requires a 48-inch plasma screen to get 19 inches of actual sports viewing.

It is even suggested to the viewer that he/she go to the network's website to enhance their viewing experience. That's actually a good idea, because it's the only place you can actually get the play-by-play of the game, since the clowns in the booth have spent the last 15 minutes talking about the BCS, whether instant replay review should continue, how the star player's contract negotiations are going, and, most importantly, what shows are coming up this week on the network.

Years ago, NBC actually broadcast a game with no announcers. I thought it was wonderful, and, apparently, so did a lot of other people. I think it's time to try that one again, just for a short experimental period. Like, say, the next 10 years.

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