Do You Believe in Promo-Free Sports Coverage? Yes!
Instead, I watched something I had TiVoed off ESPN Classic a couple nights ago -- the U.S.-versus-Soviet Union hockey game from the 1980 Olympics. I've lost count of how many times I've seen that game in the past 22 years -- certainly enough to commit major portions of the contest to memory. When color commentator Ken Dryden starts talking about how the U.S. team is relying too much on goalie Jim Craig at the 10-minute mark of the third period, for instance, it's the safest bet you'll ever make that Mike Eruzione is going to wrist a shot past Vladimir Myshkin for a 4-3 lead as the building erupts.
Not to spoil the ending or anything, but the U.S. squad winds up holding on for the victory.
Yet, even though I know how it ends, even though I can recount every goal, I always watch that hockey game whenever it's on. I always shake my head at the end of the first period, when Viktor Tikhonov yanks Vladislav Tretiak -- certainly the greatest goalie of his time, and arguably, the best ever -- in favor of the untested Myshkin, since I know the bullheaded Soviet coach has just cost his team the game. I always chortle when U.S. coach Herb Brooks exults in the Eruzione goal, only to stop and stare pointedly at the game clock as he realizes he's about to endure the 10 longest minutes of his life. And I still get the same goosebumps, the ones that start at the 28-second mark when announcer Al Michaels informs viewers that "The crowd is going insane!" and end as soon as Michaels asks us whether or not we believe in miracles.
But this time when I watched that 22-year-old telecast, I noticed something else about the game -- something that was missing. Whenever there was a stoppage in play, Michaels and Dryden would talk about the game, the strategies in play, which players to keep an eye on and so forth. What they didn't talk about was ABC's prime-time lineup or the great shows you could expect to see on the network once the Winter Olympics concluded. When the cameras panned the stands at the Olympic Events center, we weren't treated to random shots of Fonzie, or Captain Steubing or the cast of Charlie's Angels sitting amongst the crowd. And when Alesander Maltsev scored early in the second period to give the Soviets a 3-2 lead, Al Michaels did not say, "The Maltsev score puts the U.S. in a tight spot... but not as tight as the spot Jack Tripper finds himself in with the Ropers on an all-new Three's Company, this Tuesday on ABC."
No network would ever allow that to happen nowadays. Sporting events have become extended promos, three-hour commercials for your prime-time schedule with the occasional home run, slam dunk or groin pull to give the announcers a break from relentlessly shilling Just Shoot Me. You can't go five minutes in the Super Bowl without Pat Summerall exhorting you to stay tuned for a special hour-long Malcolm in the Middle immediately following the game. Networks regularly squeeze promos for upcoming shows in between plays; it won't be long before they've figured out a way to trumpet the latest episode of That '70s Show in the time it takes the pitch to leave the pitcher's hand and arrive at home plate. And any time there's a shot of the crowd, you've got a fifty-fifty shot of seeing David Schwimmer or Tom Arnold or the skeletal remains of Calista Flockhart who -- can you imagine? -- have a show coming up on this very network.
In many ways, televised sports coverage has made a quantum leap since 1980. The graphics have gotten more sophisticated and telling. The camera work has become more extensive and revealing, with everything from skycams to goalcams giving us another look at the action. For every failed, ill-conceived attempt at innovation -- hello, glowing hockey puck -- you can name two or three improvements in sports broadcasting made during the past two decades.
Well... except for one area. Despite the crude graphics and two-decade-old conventions, that ABC broadcast of the U.S.-Soviet hockey game does an unparalleled job of depicting and describing the action -- telling you who won, who lost and why -- with an absolute minimum of distractions. There were no logos cluttering up the screen, no over-the-top halftime show to promote, no comedian-turned-analyst in the booth cracking up at his own one-liners -- in short, none of the relentless self-promotion that marks the sports telecasts of today.
Yes, TV networks have dramatically improved the methods they use to cover sports in the past 22 years -- I'm just not sure they've done much to improve the coverage itself.
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