I’ve been trying to get this blog post written for days. It’s not coming together as coherently it appears in my head, so instead of trying to get it right, I’m dumping the thoughts out there. My usual approach, then! I wanted this to be about the second screen revolution and how broadcasters need to rethink how they approach sporting events, but I got lost along the way. So, here it is. If I manage to make a more coherent argument (unlikely, if previous thoughts are anything to go by!) I’ll post it up.
So, some of you may be aware of a rather large sporting event is happening in London, England right now. It’s a huge spectacle that has an unprecedented broadcast agenda – namely 24 channels of HD sports for UK viewers. This, in turn, means a lot of people having to talk about what’s happening: the commentators.
But before I get to them, let’s rewind 20 years.
It was during this period of my life that I actually cared about sport. Like a lot of teenage boys I had a favourite football team. I used to watch, on one of the three channels available, the highlights of the day’s games from Division One (what we now call the Premiership). Often, because the highlights programme was on late at night, I would listen to the radio instead. A medium that relies on someone telling you what is going on. Commentators needed to build up the atmosphere for those who could not see the action.
TV was different. On TV we had a certain John ‘Motty’ Motson. The man had, so it seemed, a head full of stats about each player; for any athletics events, we had the formidable David Coleman, famous for his verbal mistakes that created neologisms and Spoonerisms – and outright hilarious puns and gaffes – eventually culminating in a series of books called, Colemanballs.
And there was a huge difference between the two styles of commentating. David Coleman gave us passion and a sense of the occasion (even if we could see what he was talking about on our own television), while Motty preferred to tell us statistics.
That was back in the day when we only had three television channels, the radio, or were lucky enough to be a spectator at the actual live event. Neither method of commentating was right, or wrong.
Now, let’s get bang up to date.
In the world we now live in, there is a multitude of channels on the TV. I think I can access over 100, just via my cable company. Then there’s online, which adds a whole load more. And then there’s the commentators of today – no longer the preserve of paid ‘professionals’ – Twitter users, bloggers, Facebook friends, etc, all have a part of play. Which means the people who are paid to commentate have to up their game.
Well, I’ve noticed during the Olympics in London, and also in recent football matches, that commentators are flinging stats at us almost constantly. Or just blandly telling us what is happening at a given moment in a game. Real-time analysis is seemingly all the rage.
Except, we rarely use one channel now. We use this proliferation of channels, what is referred to as the ‘second screen’. In our house, that extends to three, or occasionally four, screens.
The thing is: I have noticed that TV commentating hasn’t moved with the times. It’s still the Motty school of commentating. Stats. Constant stats and ongoing analysis. Atmospheric commentary is being relegated to Twitter, or other social networks. It means I’ve taken to watching television with the sound off, while I read Tweets about the event. Most interesting is that Twitter also provides pretty sound stats, usually via a hashtag. Television, for me at least, has become an entirely visual experience.
So, why aren’t commentators going back to the David Coleman school of thought? Leave the analysis to afterwards, when you have something to analyse, and in a larger context of a whole match, or cycle race, or whatever event it happens to be. Bring me some idea of the atmosphere. Do the stat stuff before, so I can mentally build a picture of who might win, or why an upset is such a big deal. (I have to mention the piece in The Telegraph newspaper today about Ed Leigh, who is doing his best to make his commentary less about stats, although he’s leaning towards Alan Partridge.)
I know I’m probably not making sense here. I’ll try to sum it up.
Data is great. But using data as the bedrock of sports commentary is making watching sport boring. Real-time analysis means sporting events seem cold and corporate. (And perhaps they are, if we believe what the media, and subversive graffiti artists, say.)
I use the failure of technology leaving the commentators of the women’s cycling road race at a loss as to what was statistically happening as an example. They were quiet for a while; then they vented about how they had no access to data. Finally, they simply got passionate about what they – and by extension, we – were witnessing. Conjecture made an appearance. It was exciting – not just to watch but also to listen to. It reminded me of the days when we only had three TV channels and the radio.
In short, it was brilliant. Unlike a lot of sports commentary has been of late.
So, to conclude
I’m nostalgic for days when data and stats didn’t pervade sports commentary to the extent it does today;
I’d like to see more passion, with stats making an appearance before (to build excitement) and after (when analysis can take place with context);
I should probably watch sporting events with the sound off all the time. Or not at all. (I admit I rarely watch anything other than major sporting events.)
I suspect I’m in a minority here. Or am I?