January 29, 2014

The 180-minute warning

What with the Super Bowl coming up this weekend, I thought this might be an appropriate time to revisit a story I'd done at the motherblog a few years ago. The statistics in the article might have changed slightly, but not significantly.  You've probably read me refer to the Super Bowl as the "Stupor Bowl," and the "Super Bore," among other derogatory comments.  There's a good reason why.

An interesting article by David Biderman in the Wall Street Journal back in 2010 talked about the amount of action in the average professional football telecast. According to Biderman's research, there is an average of 10 minutes and 43 seconds of action during a three-hour broadcast. Less than eleven minutes, out of 180. Lest you get too up in arms about that, though, Biderman reports the following:

In November 1912, Indiana University's C.P. Hutchins, the school's director of physical training, observed a game, stopwatch in hand, between two independent teams. He counted 13 minutes, 16 seconds of play. During last week's Wild Card games, Mr. Crippen, the football researcher, dissected the broadcasts and found about 13 minutes, 30 seconds of action.

Well, that's a relief.

So the amount of action in a football game has changed by less than three minutes in the course of almost one hundred years. But if games seem to be taking longer to play than they used to, there's a good reason why.

Back in the day (actually, up until the the very early 1970s), NFL games had a uniform starting time of 1 p.m. local time (except in Baltimore, where the Blue Laws prevented games from kicking off prior to 2:00.) That meant games in the Midwest (Minneapolis, Chicago, St. Louis, Dallas) started an hour after those on the East Coast; thus, the second game of the doubleheader (if there was one; they were fairly rare until the late 60s) would be joined in progress.

That wasn't such a big deal back when I was growing up in the 60s, though, since it wasn't unusual to see games come in at around 2½ hours, meaning you'd only miss part of the first quarter of that second game. And when the game did run over three hours – the Heidi Bowl, for example – it was usually due to penalties, incomplete passes, and the like. Since games often ended before 7, networks had highlight shows (the Sperry-Rand Scoreboard show on NBC, for example) in case they needed to fill the time.

Contrast that to today’s television schedule, where the early games begin at 1:00 Eastern time (noon if you’re in the Central time zone), and are scheduled to fit into a 3¼ hour time spot. If there's a doubleheader, the second game doesn’t start until 4:15, and the whole telecast (including the post-game show) won’t wrap up until 7:30. Unless, of course, there's overtime.

So if the amount of action in the average game hasn’t changed that much, then what gives? Well, for starters, there's about an hour's worth of commercials included in each broadcast. Think of that - one hour, 60 minutes. Figure that each commercial is 30 seconds; that makes 120 commercials. If some of them are 15 second spots, that makes for even more. True, many of these take place during natural stoppages in the game, but the commercials serve to make those stoppages longer than they otherwise would have been. And then there's the insidious "TV timeout," which creates a pause (after a kickoff or turnover, for example) that not only isn't natural, it can (and often does) disrupt the flow of the game. (Touchdown, extra point, commercial, kickoff, commercial. Yeah, that's a real good flow.) But as we know, as long as the game (and the networks) depends on sponsorship money, it isn't going to change any time soon.

What about the rest of the time, you ask? Well, there's the seemingly endless replay of the previous play: 17 minutes are devoted to that alone. The instant replay didn't come into usage until the early 60s, and even then it was used primarily to show an extraordinary play, to allow people to have another look at it. There might have been some analysis included, but nothing like the dissecting that goes on now, where you might see the play from a dozen different angles: overhead, reverse angle, sideline, every which way. ESPN was the worst offender here (41% more on average than the other three networks), to no one's surprise.

You get 75 minutes of players just standing around, which is to be expected since the average play only takes up about four seconds. Shots of the head coaches and referees take up about 13 minutes. The halftime show runs 15 or 20 minutes. (Cheerleaders, incidentally, only take up about three seconds per game.) As Biderman notes, the ratio of inaction to action is about 10 to 1.

Apparently all this hasn't driven viewers away; a lot of people watch the Super Bowl more for the commercials than the game itself. I haven't watched the Super Bowl in probably ten years, so I wouldn't know.

In fact, all this has really helped to drive me away from watching football on TV. I'll watch the odd college game, and I remain a dedicated fan of the faster-paced Canadian version, but the NFL leaves me cold. TV isn't all to blame; between the politically correct owners, the hoodlum players, the semi-pornographic commercials, the drunken fans, and the fawning announcers, there's plenty of reason to find something else to watch.

So when you're watching the Super Bowl on Sunday, having possibly paid in excess of $1,000 for tickets to see it in person, you've obviously made a value-based decision that your time and money are well spent. So there's no use arguing about it, or trying to convince yourself otherwise. It is what it is.

It just seems to me you're left with too much of what you don't want, and not enough of what you do.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!