September 11, 2019

Divided we watch

I've tried, but I can't remember the last time I watched Monday Night Football. I'm pretty sure this is not due to early-onset dementia, but instead because it's been so long—at least the early 1990s, I'd guess, although I seem to recall watching the end of one about a decade ago when I had a head cold and couldn't lie down. So obviously I didn't see this past Monday's season opener, but plenty of people did, and they had plenty to say about what they saw.

What they saw, among other things, was a down-and-distance graphic that, according to The Ringer's Danny Heifetz, was an attempt to fix something that wasn't broken. At first glance, you wouldn't think that something as simple as down-and-distance could cause much controversy, unless it was telling you that your team had 3rd down and 49 yards to go. Because that's what it is: a simple graphic that tells you what down it is, and how many yards for a first down. As I said, simple—right?

Not for the graphics department at ESPN, apparently. On Monday night's game, the network inaugurated a new down marker, one that caused football fans, used to having to dealing with massive amounts of graphic information at a glance—not just down and distance, but score, game clock time, play clock time, and first down line—all without losing track of what's happening on the field. And for the first half of Monday night's game, that new down graphic caused massive amounts of reactive confusion, because, with its black lettering against a yellow background, it looked too much like the universal graphic for a penalty.* Fans have been conditioned by years of viewing to see a flash of yellow and immediately think, "Penalty!" And now they were seeing it on every play!

*Except in Canada, where penalty flags are red. They also have a 55-yard line, and spell "center" with an -re, but that's another matter.

To the network's credit, it only took one half of online ridicule to rectify the situation. By the start of the second half, a new graphic had been born:

It's a little thing, really, which makes one wonder why ESPN felt the need to fool around with it at all. As Heifetz says, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. And it does speak to a rare instance where a large corporation (or network) responds instantly to a potential faux pas, rather than stubbornly refusing to admit a mistake.

But this isn't really about football, as you might expect by virtue of me writing about it; there's a larger point to be made, and Heifetz makes it at the end of his article, when he mentions, in the course of discussing the "graphics arms race" that technology has made possible, how "Amazon experimented with allowing Prime users to choose between two sets of announcers for Thursday Night Football last year." This isn't anything new for the sports fan; viewers watching the NCAA basketball finals can choose from three different sets of announcers (each team's announcers, plus those of the network), and ESPN+ frequently allows a similar choice of team broadcasts for its weekday baseball games. And during the heyday of Monday Night Football, back when Howard Cosell was one of the announcers, fans (like me) regularly turned down the sound and listened to Jack Buck and Hank Stram on the radio.

And there's nothing wrong with that; I frequently wish I could choose a different set of announcers when I'm watching a good game being spoiled by bad announcers. There is, however, an unintended consequence, to which Heifetz alludes in his conclusion: "Something we take for granted—having the same viewing experience with the millions watching a sports game—may go away. Let’s enjoy the time we can all complain about the same thing while we still can." Yes, it's the end of the shared experience.

Since conveniences like DVRs, streaming video, and social media and habits like binge viewing have pretty much allowed us all to become our own programming directors, there's been a loose consensus that sports and breaking news represent the last best hope for a communal, talk-about-it-around-the-water-cooler-tomorrow viewing experience. Now, we're faced with the possibility that the more enjoyable of those two types may be going away.  And before you accuse me of reading too much into this (and if you haven't, just play along), let me explain why the loss of sports as a truly shared experience would serve as a microcosm of today's social problems.

What happens when Arsenal and Tottenham fans
don't see eye to eye.
Suppose I'm watching a Premier League showdown between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, and somehow I'm able to do so while listening to an Arsenal broadcast. Across town, my friend Sooj is doing the same thing, only he's listening to the Tottenham announcers. In the final minute of injury time, with the score tied, Arsenal's Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang goes down in the box after coming in contact with Tottenham's Jan Vertonghen. The referee calls a penalty, which Aubameyang converts to win the match for the Gunners. Naturally, Arsenal's announcers think the call was spot on, and after listening to them analyze the replay, I can see that they're right. Meanwhile, the Spurs announcers think their team was robbed, and after listening to their analysis, Sooj becomes equally convinced that the call was terrible. Have we shared the same experience? Have we, in fact, even seen the same match? Fans of opposing teams have always argued over controversies of one kind or another; it's the nature of sports. They've also frequently been at odds with the announcers, convinced that they're biased in favor of the other team; that's the nature of fandom. But in this case, we're not relying just on our own passions; we're basing our opinions, at least in part, on what we're hearing from the broadcast booth.

Now, let's suppose that instead of soccer, we're watching a political speech. One of us sees it on MSNBC, the other on Fox. After the speech, we're equally convinced of what we heard, even though our opinions may be diametrically opposed to each other. And we wonder, so opposite are our reactions: did we even hear the same speech? In fact, our biases, whatever they might be, are so reinforced, so justified, by the commentary on our chosen media outlet, that for all practical purposes we haven't listened to the same speech. See what I mean? Again, this is nothing new. We've had partisan analysis of the news for as long as newspapers have existed. But in our currently fragmented and inflamed state, when each of us is living on the equivalent of a desert island filtering out whatever we disagree with, the last thing we need is another source of confirmation bias, another opportunity to be divided rather than united.

This is not to put too fine a point on things. I doubt that the effects of tailor-made sports broadcasting are going to be quite that catastrophic. Nonetheless, I've gotten to the point in life where individuality goes only so far; it would be nice, at least once in a while, for all of us to start out on the same page. And when sports becomes less of a shared experience and more of an occasion for social media warfare, when we filter the outcome through a lens that accepts no derivation from the party (or team) line, when we can use the gospel truth as parroted by our favorite commentators to make our point that it has to be this way, then we've well and truly lost one more thing that once brought us together and now drives us apart.

Let's hope it doesn't come to that. It's a loss we can ill-afford in this day and age. TV  


  1. Classic comparison here, Mitchell, to the first 1960 presidential debate between JFK and Nixon. Because TV was a media in its toddler stage, communication professors wanted to study the audience reaction to those who watched the debate on WBBM-Chicago (OEO) via CBS and those who listened to it on radio. Kennedy was given a slight edge on TV because of his looks and poise as opposed to Nixon's use of "La-z Shave" used to cover his 5 O'clock shadow. The makeup melted in the harsh lights of the TV stage, making Nixon look strange and sickly, even in B&W. Radio listeners, however, gave a huge win to Nixon because of his clear "midwestern" accent as opposed to JFK's clipped, somewhat rapid Boston accent. This from a direct quote from "Encyclopedia of American Politics" via the always accurate Wikipedia:

    "Evidence in support of this belief [i.e., that Kennedy's physical appearance overshadowed his performance during the first debate] is mainly limited to sketchy reports about a market survey conducted by Sindlinger & Company in which 49% of those who listened to the debates on radio said Nixon had won compared to 21% naming Kennedy, while 30% of those who watched the debates on television said Kennedy had won compared to 29% naming Nixon. Contrary to popular belief, the Sindlinger evidence suggests not that Kennedy won on television but that the candidates tied on television while Nixon won on radio. However, no details about the sample have ever been reported, and it is unclear whether the survey results can be generalized to a larger population. Moreover, since 87% of American households had a television in 1960 [and that the] fraction of Americans lacking access to television in 1960 was concentrated in rural areas and particularly in southern and western states, places that were unlikely to hold significant proportions of Catholic voters."

  2. The NCAA Basketball situation only applies in years AT&T has the games. In odd-numbered (CBS) years, there is only one single broadcast. The primary reason is to spin the number of viewers that watch when cable ratings are lower than broadcast network television. Kevin Harlan, who is CBS' No. 4 broadcaster (does the No. 2 early game on doubleheaders), does radio for Monday Night and is well-respected.

    ESPN, which partially owns the College Football Playoff, created this mess with homers one channel and the rest with the game airing on different channels. This mess is now prevalent with MTV where every MTV awards show airs on different channels, which led to the recent "#DennyDelivers" reference on the other blog.

    Radio has become sadly a place for "homer" broadcasts where they are cheerleaders, and nothing else when it is the regional games. National NBA, NHL, NBA games, along with all NFL television games, are only authorised to have one national broadcaster where neutrality is important. That has hurt the quality of broadcasts.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!