Setting a Screen: Roone Arledge and TV Sports Production

Editor's note: this is a special guest post written by Matthew Rowe. Follow Matthew on Twitter @mattyrowe. And play the video above for your soundtrack to this post.

It's the first quarter of game seven of the Grizzlies and Thunder. The dial is flipped to ABC, and I'm trying to watch the game despite interruptions. The biggest distraction right now is taking up over half of my screen, a taped segment showing Grizz coach Lionel Hollins giving his players a pre-game speech. While this plays, the game continues in a small window on the bottom right of my TV -- a Thunder player that I can't make out has just made a long jumper, perhaps a three.

I won't exactly call mine the best seat in the house. The camera is exceptionally wide, and the cut away camera shots showing the scorer happen intermittently. The crowd seems muted, even though the announcing team is telling me that this crowd in Oklahoma City is one of the loudest they've ever heard anywhere, and how it's such an intimidating place for opponents. I could continue, but most viewers already get it. There's been enough written on how ABC/ESPN's coverage of the NBA leaves much to be desired, but lost among all the complaining is a truth that needs to be reaffirmed and repeated: television coverage shapes how we fall in love with the game. 
Sure, there's no replacement for seeing it live, but almost every fan's love started with catching a game, a play on live television. Every amazing moment we know by heart is a replay of a different angle from the television broadcast. Writing in the late 70s, David Halberstam noted in his book The Breaks of the Game
Television had helped convey basketball, like so many other sports, out of its own arenas into the mainstream of national entertainment, making it a principal means for American companies to sell American products; it was thus responsible for much of professional basketball's sudden health and, equally, much of its more recent illness. Television had helped basketball find a mass audience and had amplified for Americans the artistry of the game.
The production of sports on television has evolved considerably to the intrusive giant it is now. In the early days, producers were content to throw a fixed camera or three at the field, hang a microphone outside the press box window and call it a day. Attitudes towards TV had to be fought by those early producers, too. Worried about attendance numbers, Ford Frick, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, told one producer carrying his sport that “one of the jobs that baseball has to do is keep television from making the show too good. The trouble is that television wants the viewer to see the game better than the fan in the ballpark. The view a fan gets at home should not be any better than that of the fan in the worst seat in the ballpark."

While the heads of the major sports worried about fans showing up to the games, the goal of many network heads were high ratings to sell high prices to advertisers. Sports allowed the networks programming to sell to select advertisers trying to reach men (usually in packaged deals – a shaving company, a beer, a cigarette). The NBA in the 1960s simply wanted exposure. While the NFL and college football were the coveted sports for broadcasters, professional basketball was still on the fringes. NBC was the first to carry the games and was ready to do away with it after a few low-rated years. So between the interests of the networks, the ad men, the owners interested in protecting their sport – there wasn’t a lot of people in the broadcasting world interested the artistry of basketball. If it came out, it was because one savvy TV exec knew that the interests of the fans were the interests of everyone.

ABC Sports head Roone Arledge was the man who brought not just basketball, but sports television to the public the way modern audiences know it. While it’s easy to note some of the innovations Arledge is credited with – instant replay, slow motion – it’s more important to realize that (in David Halberstam's words)

he understood what the camera could do as few producers did. Other producers sent four or five cameras to a game; Arledge might send eleven. He was a man of impulse in a profession built around impulse; he understood that television was action, that it was live, and that the camera could convey it as words could not. Where others in sports sought rules to guide them, Arledge gloried in the fact that it was so new a business that it had no rules. He was new and he had nothing to unlearn. His cameras would catch … and create an intimacy that the average sports fans had always sought and never gained; he wanted, Arledge once wrote in a memo, to bring the fan to the game, not to bring the game to the fan.
And he brought the NBA to the fan. Games were produced every Sunday for ABC’s Wide World of Sports. While Arledge credits the rivalry between Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain as the reason the NBA was able to achieve mainstream notice, his Sunday show wasn’t a bad one either. While the league’s owners would have been happy with any coverage, Roone did it in the way one would expect coming from him. There were cameras everywhere, viewers saw short segments that introduced individual players, and an incredible emphasis on explaining strategy of the game -- explanations that came from recent hire Bob Cousy. Arledge had hired Cousy without meeting him. In his memoir, Roone, he recalls the first meeting:
“Bob,” I said, “I can’t tell you how excited I am. We’re about to start a whole new era of NBA basketball. We’re going to show America what a great sport it is, that it’s more than just a physical thing, that here’s an intellectual dimension only a great player like you can describe. Through your ability to articulate, we’re going to open the eyes of the world to the NBA.’ To which Cousy replied: “Thanks, Woone.” God. Research had somehow missed the fact that Cousy, having grown up in a French-Canadian household, had trouble pronouncing English R’s. It’s a common ailment of the French…”
So maybe Arledge wasn’t infallible, and perhaps the slightly inarticulate announcer is an appropriate metaphor for how the early coverage was received. Arledge worked with Cousy’s speech and eventually he became the ideal color commentator Arledge had in mind all along. Likewise, the NBA continued to grow on television, and audiences began tuning in. Arledge’s insistence that the programs educate the fans to the nuances of the game paid off, and by the end of the NBA’s run on ABC, the sport moved from fringe to wanted by other networks, and the fan wanted more.

ESPN could learn something from its predecessor. (ABC Sports was folded into the ‘dynamic brand’ that is ESPN.) Today instead of the fan being brought to the game the fan is brought to the ESPN portal -- the NBA on ESPN is less about the NBA and more about the ESPN. There is an endless supply of announcers, reporters, analysts. There are slick cuts, graphics, stats, and an unhealthy amount of self-promotion. The same three league wide narratives are repeated ad nauseum -- similar to talking points given to political operatives at the beginning of a cable news hour that must be repeated and driven into the ground. Among all that there is a game being played, occasionally even with players not a part of the narrative, who are as graceful and intelligent as those stars, that go largely unnoticed by anyone not a diehard fan.

Alredge may not have understood the NBA, saying he “didn’t know the difference between a screen and a pick and roll,” but he understood the business of television, and what makes compelling TV. Halberstam called Roone an everyman, saying that at a time when many men were cautious and didn’t know what they wanted or why they wanted something, Alredge stayed true to his impulses. When creating Monday Night Football he knew he had the best production on television for football fans, and he knew if he had this, he could go after another demographic, namely women.

…there was another reason CBS and NBC had failed in their weeknight dabblings and that was CBS and NBC. Their idea of televising a football game was to plant cameras on the fifty-yard line and call it a day, and that was fine for a hometown Sunday-afternoon telecast with no competition. But for a national game on a weeknight? Deadly. Prime time wasn't Sunday afternoon. Everything was different: audience, habits, expectations, program content, choices. You turned on your set at night wanting to be entertained. If you weren't, the channel got switched.
While Roone knew he was blowing the competition out of the water, he remained true to his everyman impulses and to the game. Arledge was able to turn televised sports on its head because he didn’t take the fans of the game for granted. He knew there were challenges for producing each sport for TV, but knew the human drama of the game was the main event.

It’s probably a good idea to look at the crown jewel of sports broadcasting to see how it relates to the NBA. Arledge often said that football and television were a perfect marriage – the confines of the field are shaped like a TV screen, game has a predictable pattern and the quarterback is a meaningful focal point. It’s no surprise football is coveted by broadcasters: a built in audience that accounts for high ratings, a formula for producing the show, and increasingly more and more ad dollars. In an often-quoted Wall Street Journal article about NFL coverage, we see the challenges facing NFL producers:

How much football is actually shown (and played) during the average football telecast? The answer, based on a frame-by-frame analysis of four games is an average of 10 minutes and 43 seconds … According to [CBS producer Lance] Brown, there are often so many graphics and fillers at his crew's disposal that they've had to take pains to make sure they don't commit what he describes as the "mortal sin" of football broadcasting: missing a snap. "That's absolutely a jarring thought," Mr. Brown says.
Seem familiar? The technical crews working the NBA for ESPN are the same ones that are working football games. Constant instant replays and analysis, charts and stats that enhance the action, cameras that stay wide to catch the whole action on a football field – but never once the producers commit that mortal sin of missing a snap in football.

It’s a difficult thing, covering a few hours worth of programming with less than eleven minutes of actual action. The bells and whistles of football programming have trickled down to the coverage of the NBA, but in an NBA game the action is constant. All these things detract from what’s actually happening during the game.

Television has a nasty habit of always doing things the way they’ve been done before. Everything can be whittled down to a formula. Three cameras, a microphone placed outside the window. A shot of the play, a shot of the coach, a graphic showing stats. The artistry and spontaneity of the game is boxed in by a lackluster production. Roone Arledge's approach has become routine, the fan is brought to an empty style.

So here I am watching this game, with its wide angles, under attack by constant analysis and charts trying to figure out if that’s Kevin Durant who shot that, and if it’s a three or not. I guess I’ll check the box score later tonight.

Matthew Rowe is a filmmaker living in Little Rock, where he keeps his day job. Follow him on Twitter @mattyrowe.

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Kelly said...

I really loved this post!

Jon said...

Intriguing post that brushes at the difference between the basketball shot clock and the football play clock. A basketball game is a much more organic entity than a football game and deserves a less regimented and accessorized form of coverage.

Anonymous said...

agree with most of this, but...what's your take on TNT's coverage? i think they do a pretty excellent job of covering the NBA.

Anonymous said...

Good stuff; agree completely. I'm hoping that League Pass Broadband might be an area for innovation, but that might be a little too optimistic of me. I think the most maddening part of ESPN coverage is that they think analysis means reading statistics out of context (or worse, reading statistics that obviously aren't telling the whole story). A number is just a number; use them to tell us something interesting, or don't use them at all.

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of the first few NBC games covering teh Kings when we had Jason Williams. They missed more than one quick pass and score because they assumed they had fifteen seconds after the ball was inbounded to justify their paychecks with graphics and "analysis." Whatever.

Alredge sounds like he understood where the sweet spot was between analysis and actual game coverage.

As you noted, that's clearly something lost on most NBA coverage today.

I don't watch the NHL, but I imagine NBA coverage should be closer to that model of coverage than that for football.

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