A game virtually ruined

The US television coverage of the World Cup has thrown up an array of new technologial ‘advances’. Peter Hall rues the diversion of attention away from the actual game.

It was said that when Pelé took a free kick, the players in the defensive wall wanted to turn around and face the net so they wouldn’t miss the goal.

Now, of course, they could console themselves by watching the goal from every conceivable angle, ad infinitum, in the after-match analysis. Here in the US, the network and cable channels are just getting wise to the fact that while 45 minutes of uninterrupted play means no commercials, they can milk advertisers for all they’re worth in the post-match scrutiny. The network channel ABC now has it down to three 25 second segments of analysis sandwiched between four commercial breaks. That’s about six minutes of advertising for just over a minute of actual “information”.

Coverage of World Cup “soccer”, US-style, is a wonder to behold; a panacea of excessive branding, hi-tech replays and match-stats technobabble. It’s a selection of TV graphics to make Martin Lambie-Nairn weep. Now, perhaps there is something to be said for a computer simulation that enables couch potato fans to mutter “told you so” to the linesman’s missed offside call. But let’s face it, as a design innovation, “virtual replay” is virtually useless. ABC likes to use it to make the goals look like a scene from a vintage arcade game. The field is transformed into that vivid computer-generated simulation, each player becomes a lifeless 3D version of his former self, and the ball floats dreamily across the goal mouth awaiting the virtual head of the simulated goal scorer. With the touch of some ABC central intelligence buttons, the whole scene spins around so that the commentators can illustrate the goalkeeper’s point of view, the striker’s point of view, the defensive errors, and so on. But as a presentation of the event, it conveys far less than the live action. At least with arcade games you could stop the ball from going in.

One alarming difference from UK coverage is that all three of the Disney-owned channels which are relaying the World Cup matches ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 have undertaken to fill the screen with statistics. Perhaps statistical analysis makes sense when applied to American football. But in the great game of football, as we all know, it’s all about getting the ball in the net, not the “amount” of possession each team has had, the number of fouls and “shots on goal”. Nevertheless, a big blue statistics box intermittently obscures a third of the screen, leaving the hapless viewer with a neck strain from trying to peer around it.

Then, thanks to the efforts of the poor souls in ABC’s on-air graphics department, two of the three remaining corners of the TV screen are also obscured by branding graphics. These disappear only during commercial breaks. In the lower right-hand corner lurks a transparent version of the ABC logo, a little round circle filled with the three lower-case letters. Don’t get me wrong, I love that logo, and am impressed that it hasn’t changed since

Paul Rand designed it in 1962. But it’s not that good. Is ABC scared that our attention spans have dwindled to the point where we need to be constantly reminded who is bringing us these moving pictures? Finally, in the top right-hand corner is a logo provided by whichever organisation is sponsoring that portion of the match: Federal Express, Nike, or the US Army.

Sponsorship is now the driving force behind the style and composition of US television graphics. The channel bringing you the match pitches its brand name into a viper’s nest of sponsor graphics competing for screen space: the logos on the uniforms, the ads in the stadium and the screen sponsor logos, followed by commercial breaks and title sequences that are a visual battlefield of warring logos.

Scoff you may, lucky BBC viewers. But your taunts may be shortlived. I caught a glimpse of the future the other day when I found myself in an office connected to a Spanish language website with a live feed of the Netherlands-Belgium match. Here was every office-bound football fan’s dream – a chance to watch the match while appearing to be hard at work at the computer. I noticed, however, that the moray of logos crowding out the TV screen football field was three times worse on the website. Littered around the cruddy little screen transmitting the game were logos, hot buttons and more logos. Soon, we are told, high-definition TV will be an interactive medium with mesmerising menus of programming choice modelled on the Web experience. It struck me that those defenders in Pelé’s wall were right to turn around. One day, in the not too distant future, the players on the field will be the only ones able to see the game.

Latest articles