A journal of television and new media

Sports Commentary and the Problem of Television Knowledge

John Frankenheimer’s 1998 film, Ronin, contains a truly sublime moment that illustrates the raw power of athleticism as an audio/visual spectacle. In one narratively insignificant scene, the camera follows a figure skater, played by former Olympic champion Katarina Witt, as she rehearses her routine. Rachmaninoff plays over the empty stadium’s speakers as Witt gracefully strides and leaps across the ice. Audible above the music are the more jarring sounds of her skates grinding into the ice as she gathers energy for her next maneuver. The scene becomes a study in contrasts, and the cumulative effect is enthralling; the violent noise of Witt’s skates belying the smooth grace of her movements, the sights and sounds of an exceptional athlete engaged in the perfection of her sport.

Katarina Witt in Ronin (1998)

I have watched, but never really been a fan of, figure skating on television, and was surprised by my attraction to this scene. What made it so compelling compared to its television counterpart, I later realized, was the conspicuous absence of the omnipresent sports commentators. Their overly-enthusiastic discourse on lutzes and Biellmanns, and their pontifications about how a particular jump was “sending a message” to the other competitors, drowned out the beauty of the skating with a flood of technical jargon. The film allowed me to experience the skater on her own terms while television insisted that I engage skating on the commentators’ terms. Obviously, sports commentary is not limited to figure skating; all televised sports exhibit similar tendencies for over-discussion. For example, no quarterback can complete a pass without the audience being told what kind of a pass it was by a former quarterback-turned-commentator who then analogizes the play to on from his own playing past. Watching sports on television is less about observing the athletic spectacle of graceful competition than it is witnessing the construction of a televisual compendium of sports knowledge for which the game is merely the backdrop.

Given the ubiquity of sports commentary on television, there must be some perceived purpose behind it. But what might that purpose be? More importantly, what does it say about television sports audiences and the regard in which they are held by television networks that no sporting activity can be conveyed to the public without commentary? Why are television audiences not allowed to experience televised sports with only the natural sounds of the event? Inquiring about the role of commentating in televised sports engages how television creates knowledge and situates audiences with respect to sports. What we find is that television sports commentary turns sports from a visceral spectacle into a technical oration, and for no discernible benefit.

The most generous view of television sports commentary suggests that its purpose is to provide otherwise inaccessible information to viewers in a timely manner so as to enhance their viewing experience. And commentary can and does fulfill this function. With research staff on hand and their own well of experience, television commentators can draw out those interesting bits of history and trivia that, at the right moment in a game, can both inform and entertain their audiences with explanations of obscure rulings or contextualizations of significant plays. But commentators are not held in reserve off-camera until this information is needed, they are thrust into the foreground and seemingly required to speak even when there isn’t really much to say. They are the vanguard of the over-verbalizing forces of modern television. But information dissemination is not the same as conveying understanding, and it is the difference between those two that generates the knowledge problematic for television.

Any quality assessment of information is subjective, but one needn’t be a cynic to question the instructional value of much of the sports commentary on television. John Madden’s teleprompter circles around and discussion of the sweat stains of defensive linemen may be amusing, but certainly stretch the consideration of what counts as sports commentary. Similarly, tennis commentator Mary Carillo’s extended stories about Roger Federer’s attendance at a New York fashion show, with which she regaled audiences during play at this year’s U.S. Open, certainly make it fair to question the information value of such details over more pertinent information about the actual play on the court. Even those who applaud these digressions admit that the commentators are known more for their personalities than for their ability to provide quality information to audiences (e.g., Maffei, 2006). But I’m not describing only those instances when commentary moves from the trivial to the tangential; too much substantive information can also distract the viewer by asking them to give more attention to the commentator than to what is being commented on.

Mary Carillo at the mic

For those “in the know,” technical jargon indeed may be neither impenetrable nor detrimental to their viewing enjoyment, much in the same way that casual fans may appreciate Madden’s and Carillo’s meanderings through sensibility. But television is not a democratic but a tyrannical medium – we can only observe what it gives us. When the commentary is present, we must all accept it or mute it; there can be no in-between. The coverage interpellates the viewer as someone needing this data in order to enjoy the sporting event. Familiarity is rewarded, but not knowledge – the latter is claimed as the medium’s province. The audience is positioned as not being knowledgeable enough about the sport to enjoy it on its own terms or with only minimal informational assistance. Consequently, the commentary is a rhetoric of entertainment more than instruction. The unfortunate consequence of this assumption is that commentators believe that any factoid or story they convey – no matter its relation to what is taking place on the field of play – is of interest to the home viewer. Audiences have few means available for escaping or challenging their position in this dynamic. The forceful manner of the medium seldom creates an opportunity for audiences to assess this claim independent of the commentary and its self-established justification.

On a very few occasions, however, a different perspective has been available, and is helpful for situating sports commentary within the politics of the audience’s relationship to television. On December 20, 1980, NBC experimented with an “announcerless” broadcast of an NFL game between the New York Jets and the Miami Dolphins. Viewers at home heard only the natural sounds of the game, similar to what the fans in the stadium heard that night. The game earned respectable ratings, but the format was not continued because network executives considered it a “one-time gimmick” (Rubinstein, 2000). A quarter of a century later, following a media lockout by the Canadian Football League, several weeks worth of announcerless games were broadcast to fans, and their ratings were dramatically higher than games which featured commentary (“King Kaufman’s,” 2005). Fans, it would seem, are both capable of and willing to experience sports on television without the informational assistance of commentators or their anecdotes, and while these instances may be too few to support the claim that viewers prefer announcerless broadcasts, they do warrant additional thought along these lines.

Announcer John Madden (right) in heated discussion

If any event on television could be broadcast without worrying about the audience’s ability to understand and appreciate what they are seeing, relying on the audience’s existing level of familiarity with the concept, it certainly would be a sports event. And yet, sports are the most heavily commented events on television, to the point where it is not uncommon for there to be more commentators for an event than there are actual competitors on the field. If the explanation for this circumstance is that the audience need educating, then there are significant issues both with the quality of this education and the manner in which it is provided. Sports commentary on television, in its current form, is not simply too often distracting and trivial, its self-insistence is detrimental to fans’ ability to experience the events they have tuned in to watch. The technical knowledge hurled at television sports audiences shifts them from a position of being able to appreciate the athlete’s skills at the visceral level to a position where technical understanding is rewarded. Sports commentary as such is television’s vestigial organ, the unnecessary remnant that points out how the medium has not completely evolved into the modern media sphere. With the Internet in particular, the mythos of the uninformed audience is challenged. This is not to say that Internet audiences are smarter or better educated about the sports that they are watching, merely that they have access to a wealth of information and are far less reliant on commentators to provide it to them, as countless fan and media sites across the Web demonstrate. The realization needed here by networks is that, when it comes to sports, television is a medium of stimulation much more than it is a medium of information. Perhaps it would be best if television sports coverage were reshaped as a medium of appreciation, where the visceral impact of sport is conveyed more cleanly and directly. In the current media age, commentating is the province of audiences eager to make their own voices heard, not to simply listen to intermediaries who drift increasingly into shouting outrages in an attempt to garner attention and justify their airtime. Television should handle the transmission of the natural sites and sounds of the games and the commentary should be left to the fans to discover and generate for themselves.

References

King Kaufman’s sports daily. (2005, August 31). Retrieved September 15, 2007. On the WWW: http://www.salon.com/news/sports/col/kaufman/2005/08/31/wednesday/

Maffei, John. (2006, June 22). These voices don’t mince words. North County Times. Retrieved September 15, 2007, from the WWW: http://www.nctimes.com/articles/2006/06/23/sports/maffei/22_00_516_22_06.txt

Rubinstein, Julian. (2000, September 3). Monday night football’s hail Mary. New York Times Magazine. Retrieved September 15, 2007. On the WWW: http://www.julianrubinstein.com/football.html

Image Credits:
Katarina Witt in Ronin (1998).
Mary Carillo at the mic.
Announcer John Madden in heated discussion.

Please feel free to comment.

Comments

  • Macthomson said:

    In many overseas territories there is a substantial portion of the overall television sports audience who watch on sets installed in bars and cafés. In many cases the presentation is video only, particularly when the feed comes from satellite and the audio is in a foreign language. Recently I followed the Rugby World Cup action in an Abu Dhabi pub and never felt disadvantaged by a lack of commentary.

    Another perspective on this issue dates back to my years in Munich. There I headed a team tasked with producing German-language versions of imported sports programming. Since several sports, such as NASCAR racing and NFL football, were very unfamiliar to German viewers we consciously edited the German voice-over scripts to deliver only the bare minimum of helpful information. We even used multiple voicers to give an auditory cue with regard to different categories of data. The girl who sexily breathed “third down and three” was used only for the yardage reporting! Looking back, I think we were quite clever to sub-divide data this way, creating a kind of data hierarchy which may well have significantly enhanced comprehension.

  • Jacqueline said:

    Perhaps the initial pressures to continually be commentating came when sports made a transition from radio to television – from a medium that required continuous discussion to one that did not. Now, I do not know any avid sports’ watchers who are not bothered by the continuous discussions amongst commentators. So often their discussions have absolutely nothing to do with the game – during the OU/UT game they discussed for over two minutes how many hot dogs one commentator had eaten since he’d been at the State Fair (complete with an illustrated chart). Aside from having a platform for discussing their own great pasts, they also have potential to sway the audience into believing a performance was or was not great. It’s amazing how quickly they’ll be putting down a team, and then the very next play they start talking as if the team has played a great game from the beginning. Obviously people who’ve been watching the whole time take note that this is not true, but I wonder what effect it has on the polls – when audiences tune into the last few minutes of a game and hear commentators giving a completely unrealistic recap of a game.

  • John Jordan said:

    I think that’s a brilliant observation, Jacqueline. In the need to create constant verbal movement, the game itself is discursively suspended in a web of intersecting storylines that can be activated very quickly. The play being commented on at a given synchronic moment is part of a multitude of diachronic stories about the overall game, marking an intersection between all possible narratives. The commentators seldom are concerned about making these multiple story lines consistent, as you pointed out. From hero to goat with a swing of the bat, and the entire narrative of the game, from past to present to future, is instantly rewritten.

    I also agree with you that this creates a problem of trust between the audience and the commentators. And I think the problem is not one of accuracy (I don’t believe they make up the statistics), but more of qualitative framing. The “character” of the game becomes disjointed between what fans expect to hear (e.g., what they expect the narrative of the game to be) and what they hear from the commentators. Perhaps this makes them such easy targets.

  • Elliot Panek said:

    Last year during the NFL playoffs, I accidentally discovered that some networks broadcast an alternate announcer-less audio track available through the SAP function on your TV (I think it was CBS). I’m not sure about this and wasn’t able to find much about it online, but give it a try next Sunday.

    Also, its interesting to consider the possibility of alternate commentary tracks offered live online (I think alternate commentaries on the Oscars are offered online, and sports seems like a logical next step). These SAP and online possibilities show that (augmented) TV might not be as tyrannical as we think.

    I actually like most sports commentary, though i recognize the utter inanity and the apparent superfluousness of it. I wholeheartedly agree that most of it is either redundant or so convoluted as to be incomprehensible. I’ve been watching football on TV for 22 yrs, and I still don’t know what the heck a 3-4 defense is. I’ve come to conclude that announcing is like a laugh track – it makes the experience more social, less lonely. When I watched the game w/o commentary, I felt as though I either should’ve been AT the game with other people, or in my living room watching w/ other people. The experience got me to realize how social sports spectating is. I’m not sure how many people watch sports by themselves, but I would suspect its pretty high, and I’d suspect that as much as people bitch about annoying commentators, they’d miss them if they left.

    Sometimes, I think that it would be better to put someone more entertaining in the booth. Then I remember how incongruous Dennis Miller was on MNF. Really, what I want to hear is someone who I perceive to be an expert on football. Whether or not I know what they’re talking about doesn’t really matter. I’ve just gotten so used to it.

  • Peter Alilunas said:

    Elliot’s observation of the potential for alternate audio tracks is fascinating to me. It appears that the more the “primary” audio track attempts to reach out to gain a broader audience (how else to explain things like the ridiculous hot dog example Jacqueline points to — or the presence of people like Dennis Miller, or, now, Keith Olbermann, on NFL broadcasts?) the more a space for alternate, side-channels seems to exist. I agree with Elliot that what I really want from a sports announcing team is analysis and insight that I don’t readily know myself, but that I might represent part of an increasing viewing minority.

    The urge to “entertain” beyond the game itself is one that I believe needs to be analyzed further: from the incessant spectacle at live events during play stoppages to mini-programs like the NFL “punked” segments that aired during halftime of Monday Night Football a few years ago, there is no doubt that sports have become just like other televisual entertainments, which is to say they are afraid of spectatorial distraction and believe that more, rather than less, is more. I think this column by John is a step int that analytical direction.

  • Jacqueline Vickery said:

    In addition to the urge to “entertain” there is also the constant promotion of other network shows. Commentators analyze the performance of an individual player, and in the very next sentence they are discussing the upcoming episode of Lost or Desperate Housewives. I’m assuming these are paid-advertisements pushing network shows. But to go back to the polls, how is something such as the Heisman trophy winner also influenced by the commentators’ approval or disapproval of a candidate. While I have absolutely no evidence that would suggest this is happening, I have to ask: If commentators can be paid to support a show, can they not also be bribed to hype up a particular team or individual player as well? What are the potential consequences of sports analysts meets paid sponsor?

  • Michael Augsberger said:

    My freshman year of high school, I may have been considered a casual fan of Shakespeare. So I didn’t understand all the words spoken during one performance of The Taming of the Shrew my class saw at a theatre, and I certainly didn’t understand why, at a seemingly random point, one teacher in the audience bellowed a ferocious laugh—at which all the students present laughed.

    In essence, John W. Jordan argues that these students, had someone let them in on the joke understood by only the teacher, would not have enjoyed it better. Albeit, Jordan deals not with Shakespeare but with sports commentary. Jordan’s main point is that “sports commentary turns sports from a visceral spectacle into a technical oration, and for no discernible benefit”. Though he concedes that commentators are valuable in disseminating information, he argues that they often offer too many trivial tidbits. Commentary has become entertainment rather than informatory dialogue, and thereupon it is unnecessary.

    However, commentary as such entertainment flourishes a sporting event. Commentators, much like athletic coaches and academic teachers, must know what to say, when to say it, and how to say it. Not only do they communicate information educationally, they set the stage for drama. (Mike Patrick of ESPN is, in my opinion, one master of this stage-setting.) Implicit in these three roles of speaker, timer, and rhetorician is that the commentator also know what not to say—when to keep his mouth shut and let the pictures and ambient sounds do the talking. Like screenwriters, commentators must in their preparation become the God of their little universe—knowing each player’s backstory, traits, statistics. Indeed, when a master craftsman performs at his best, the production lifts the sporting event to an even higher emotional level. One needs only think of Jack Buck (“And we’ll see you tomorrow night!”) or Al Michaels (“Do you believe in miracles?”).

    Such consummate sportscasting also can elevate sports programming even to a state of legitimate criticism and interpretation, and the sportscaster and his team are responsible for the added meaning. Sean McDonough’s call at the end of the 1993 World Series perfectly intertwines the crowd’s reaction to Joe Carter’s home run and his own thoughts. His words hearken back to the glory days of boxing, cor-ad-cor fights of passion, without once mentioning that sport: “Winners, and still world champions, the Toronto Blue Jays.” Of course, he outlined the obvious, that Toronto had won the series. But the words conveyed that Toronto won a second consecutive title in a unique manner (hence “still”, as in a ring announcer’s revealing the winner of a title bout). Yet afterwards the sportscaster muted his microphone, allowing the frenzied SkyDome crowd to take over. In his preparations for the Series, McDonough may have put as much thought into that defining stroke as Michelangelo put into a stroke of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Television as an art form eventually fought its way to legitimate criticism; sportscasting may one day be regarded, as an art and as entertainment, to be interpreted and criticized as well.

    Perhaps one of the major reasons Jordan comes to such a bleak outlook on television commentary may be that he evaluates a heavy dose of only mediocre commentators instead of the profession’s finest. He mentions Mary Cirillo, who isn’t even the lead sportscaster for ESPN’s tennis coverage. Listen to Cliff Drysdale and Patrick McEnroe, who know exactly when to describe and analyze the action and when to back off. Listen to Jim Nantz, CBS’s lead commentator for practically every sport the station covers, and it’s clear that he’s earned his place at the Masters, the Super Bowl, and NCAA basketball championship all in the same year.

    Because viewers often hear the same voices for local broadcasts, the commentators become as much a part of the experience of following a certain team as the team’s players. The Los Angeles Kings’ Bob Miller and the Philadelphia Phillies’ Harry Kalas have spent decades with their fan bases. Viewers develop that familiarity even with national broadcasters who make regular appearances, such as Sunday Night Baseball’s Jon Miller and the NHL on Versus’s Mike Emrick. Such a relationship between viewer and sportscaster is not unlike the ‘relationships’ viewers share with characters in a primetime drama.

    Jordan argues persuasively that sports programming relies on audience familiarity with the subject matter more than any other type of programming, yet it still needlessly comments on the action. To a point, this is wonderfully argued. Tim McCarver, Fox’s otherwise excellent baseball analyst, noticeably dumbs down his analysis during the World Series, when a greater percentage of casual fans watch. While during the regular season McCarver renders explanations more for an educated baseball fan, during the playoffs he will explain obvious situations so that a housewife who last played softball in second grade understands them. However, in short, so much more goes on during a sporting event than the driving of a blade against ice and the noise of a crowd. A seasoned commentator, present at the event, notices nuances and happenings unperceivable through a screen miles removed from the action. And even the most die-hard football fans have not memorized the entire rulebook, and it certainly helps to have an expert on hand.

    For just one example, at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games, the entire figure-skating judging criteria and procedure were changed. Viewers, most of whom have Jordan’s sort of interest in the sport, hardly can be expected to recall how the event was scored four years prior, let alone to know the new criteria. Had NBC aired the contest Ronin-style, without commentators, viewers would have taken in an aesthetically pleasing experience, but they’d have had no idea how the woman at the top of the podium got there. Innocence has its perks, but it is an enlightened mind that can best appreciate the beauty of a performance. How much more entertaining is The Taming of the Shrew for a Shakespearean instructor, who is in on the inside jokes, than for the high school freshman?

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