TV sportscasting is getting it wrong

Tony Romo is now the top color commentator for CBS football games, and Phil Simms is out.

The New York Daily News reminds us that Romo is getting this promotion despite no experience in sportscasting.

(Sidebar: It’s funny, isn’t it, that Romo had to toil as a little-known backup quarterback for years before taking on a job that generally goes to a top, high-profile draftee, but he walked right into a job that normally goes to someone who toils for a couple of years at a lower level?)

Romo might be good. He might suck. But he would have to suck awfully bad to get people to turn off the channel, wouldn’t he? People will tune into CBS to see football and tolerate the announcers. No one is turning the dial to figure skating on Sunday afternoon. So Romo’s “qualifications” and “abilities” are actually irrelevant. Unless he pulls a Jimmy the Greek, he’ll be fine.

Speaking of sportscasting, this week the Dodgers opened their season and will play the year sans Vin Scully for the first time since the 1940s. Scully’s style of calling television games was different, as anyone who watched Dodgers broadcasts will surely recall. Sitting alone on the microphone, Scully would talk and tell stories – like a talk radio host without the ferocious outrage – while incidentally mentioning the game action. It worked especially well on television.

To watch Scully succeed this way begs the question: Why do TV announcers spend so much time describing the action that viewers can see? Think about it next time you watch a game. Then, for extra fun, count how many times they read graphics to you. Michael Kay of the YES Network is particularly guilty of this sin (though I have probably watched so many of his games that my bias may be showing).

It makes sense why they do this – many sportscasters get their start in radio, where there is no visual support. But one would think that some media outlet would try something different. After all, television news programs stopped presenting the same way as radio news. We have had televised sports for something like seven decades, why do we still adhere to radio-era traditions? This is especially true for football, America’s made-for-television sport.

There might be a new model emerging from networks that use “whip around” coverage. The MLB Network does this particularly well with MLB Tonight, where a host and two in-studio analysts watch each night’s action and comment over teams’ local broadcast feeds. Their easy, joke-filled banter makes it fun to watch, mirroring conversations you might have watching games with a bunch of friends. And it’s different from most baseball broadcasts, where an announcer narrates events as you watch them.

This could work for a single team, as well. Wouldn’t that be more fun to watch than some former athlete rhythmically rattling off recaps of the obvious during breaks in the action as most color commentators do? Think of the familiarity and rapport fans could develop with the on-screen personalities.

Television sports is not a high-risk place to experiment – generally, ratings are driven by the games more than the broadcast. CBS gets that, which is why they’re willing to stick Tony Romo in a broadcasting booth with only a few postgame interviews under his belt. It’s time to try something even bolder. The radio era is over.

It’s time to try something even bolder. Sportscasting should evolve past where it was during Vin Scully’s rookie year.

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