I noticed a couple years ago that people had stopped complaining about all the extra beeps and pop-ups and detritus that pops up on our television screens during sporting events. This used to be a common complaint: Stuff that networks did to get in the way of the game used to bother us. The glowing puck is of course the most famous example -- along with maybe Scooter -- but after those high-profile missteps, our broadcasters discovered innovations we actually wanted, from the Fox Box to the First and 10 line to whatever that WOOSH is whenever someone throws a pitch over 95 miles per hour.
We ultimately came to love, or at least accept, the overcrowding of our television screens during games. Heck, with the advent of the Red Zone Channel, it is now not all that abnormal to see four games playing on a screen at once (the rarely-seen-in-the-wild “Quad Box,” as documented by Dan Shanoff and his son on Twitter).
But this really happened fast. We have gone from nothing on our screens during our games to everything. I went digging back through some stray games I had on my computer this morning, and it’s really quite striking. Baseball has become more austere, strangely, while football has gone insane. With apologies to Tim Burke at Deadspin -- who is the world’s most important screengrab authority and someone who will surely laugh at my rudimentary screencapture skills here -- let’s take a quick gander.
First, baseball. The 1996 NLDS between the St. Louis Cardinals and the San Diego Padres. First off, the game is broadcast by NBC, which feels archaic enough. But look at what’s showing on the screen as Willie McGee (!!!) bats against Andy Ashby in the first inning.
(Ignore the image quality. Apparently they’d set off some fireworks before the game and they hadn’t cleared the field yet. Wonderful for the batting eye, I’m sure.)
Anyway, there’s nothing there. Zilch. A person could walk in off the street and have no idea what the score is, what inning they’re in, what the game means, or, even more terrifying, who is the game’s primary corporate sponsor. Unacceptable.
Side note: This picture proves that it’s not just Bob Costas who doesn’t age. It’s all broadcasters:
So let’s move up a few years, to the 2004 National League Championship Series, now on Fox.
This looks garish to the eye compared to 1996, but only in that context. This is all pretty basic. Score. Count. Inning. NLCS Context. Network. The only thing this is missing, considering this was Fox in 2004, is a Swift Boat ad.
Just two years later, one small addition: Where the series stands.
By the 2011 World Series, Fox had figured out how to fit as much information as possible in as small a container as they could find:
That strikes me as the ideal. All the information you need, but comfortably out of the way.
And then we have the NFL.
Here’s a screengrab of a 1985 game between the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers.
Now that’s probably too little information, particularly for a sport like football with so many fans with short attention spans. How am I supposed to know how all my parlays are going with just that?
By 2009, this was how far we’d gone:
Still: That’s reasonable. That’s really not all that far from where baseball went. The basic information you need, in a bar across the top. The next step, if you do what baseball did, is to somehow make that smaller, to put it in a little box in the corner, so we can concentrate on the action on the field.
If you watched a game yesterday, you know this is not what happened. Instead:
It’s honestly difficult to find the players there. Of course, that’s now how we watch the NFL now. We don’t watch for the players: We watch to see the stats, to see how our fantasy team is doing, to see how games other than the one we’re watching are going. I don’t have a problem with this. It’s essentially how I watch games too -- NFL ones, anyway. Networks, particularly CBS, are giving fans what they’re asking for. Still, I can’t help but wonder, particularly with the new trend of hashtags and Twitter handles popping up everywhere, if eventually we’re going to be able to see the game at all. When a broadcast can change that much in three years … in five more years, so many things are going to be flashing that the NFL is going to look like downtown Tokyo. It’s going to look like Blade Runner.
And wait until all our televisions are touch screens. At this rate, at some point we’ll forget anyone’s actually playing.
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Again: I like all of this. It’s not a complaint -- just an observation. Thoughts, concerns, grousing, future column ideas? Remember, this column is meant as a valve, a release, for when you’re yelling at your television during games, or, after reading a particular column, you’re pounding your fists into your computer. Obviously, I’ll need your help to do that. Anything you want me to write about, let me know, through email or Twitter. I am at your beck and call.