Scoring With Silence

By Jason Menard

I’m truly happy that the CBC is back at the negotiation tables with its locked-out employees. Really, I am. I’d hate to see anyone lose their jobs, and I can only imagine how this lockout is affecting their family.

But I’d be lying if I wasn’t intrigued by what would happen to their sports coverage if the commentators were still walking the picket line – especially when it comes time to drop the puck.

Maybe, for the first time in a long time, we’d be able to focus on what’s really important – the game.

The CBC, which was put out to pasture with the cancellation of the NHL regular season last year, should have been looking forward to their cash cow coming home with the end of the league’s lockout. Instead, lockout-itis seems to be catching and the public broadcaster has frozen out a significant number of its on-air talent, both on the TV and radio sides of the operation.

As such, we’ve been privy to broadcasts of Canadian Football League action with only the stadium announcer providing narration. That’s it. No pre-game drivel, no post-game inanity, no meandering commentary, no random non-sequiturs, no over-analysis, no distractions.

Just the game.

And, lo and behold, the fans have responded – positively. During a game broadcast on Aug. 27, 2005, a peak total of 746,000 viewers tuned in during the fourth quarter and an average of 580,000 fans watched the game, up from the season average of 412,000 viewers.

You can attribute some of those viewers to the curiosity factor and the proof will be in the long-term viewership, but the potential message is interesting. What if this is the first time that the fans have been able to express their displeasure at how their games have been taken away from them?

Modern sports has gone well beyond the point that many fans are comfortable with. Sport is a game in name only – it’s increasingly a business, designed to be marketed to certain demographics in the hope of selling product. And, in an attempt to keep listeners glued to their sets, broadcasters have tried to make each game an event.

But perhaps the pomp and bombast that accompany each broadcast are overwhelming the fans. Maybe, just maybe, we want something more simple and more pure.

With the odd exception, most sports broadcasts are overwhelmed by the commentary. The on-air personalities are trying too hard to be just that – personalities. Many times anecdotes extend into game time – a tacit implication that the announcer’s stories are more integral to the game than the on-ice or on-field action.

Inane points are overemphasized, as if each passing syllable is an opportunity to justify commentator’s presence. And, often times, the commentary is just plain wrong – identifying the wrong player, the wrong formation, or the wrong situation – simply because the focus on coming up with the next bit of witty repartee diminishes the focus on the reality of the game.

In addition, broadcasters go into each game with an agenda. They have a story they want to tell, one that they feel will be most compelling to the audience. Whether it’s a focus on a player or a situation, broadcasters champ at the bit to frame the game action in some sort of context. But, sports being what they are, announcers often have to stretch their analogies to shoehorn the reality into their preferred context. Instead of reveling in the unpredictable nature of sports, we are weighed down with prognostication and selective analysis wherein activities that don’t justify the preferred thesis are simply discarded.

The best broadcasters are the ones that serve as a conduit through which the game flows. The best analysts are the ones who don’t go into a game with a pre-conceived agenda, but rather they possess an understanding of the game and a willingness to contextualize what’s happening on the field or on the rink based upon the here and now.

These are the broadcasters and analysts that understand that they are not the show – the game is what matters. They understand that people tune into sports for the enjoyment of the on-field or on-ice product, not the in-studio machinations. They understand that their role is to complement the game, not overwhelm it.

So while I hope those locked-out CBC staffers get back to work soon, I can’t help but harbour a faint hope that we’ll be able to hear a game without announcers. And, far from being a silent broadcast, we’d finally be allowed to hear the game speak for itself.

2005 © Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

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