Sunday, January 24, 2016

Sports Entertainment and TV Hegemony (Core Post)

I'm impressed with how much of Gitlin's argument about hegemonic strategies of network TV still holds up. In particular I'm interested in his section on televised sports and how it changes the way the audience understands the game and the structures of the televised game itself. He says that when watching sports the announcers "are not simply describing the events, but interpreting them..." (258), and that there are "extra time-outs to permit the network to sell more commercial time" (259). Both of these arguments remain true, and can easily be seen on and NFL broadcast.

As I write this with the AFC Championship Game on mute, I just saw what appeared to be a *backward pass* (frustratingly known as a "lateral pass") that was not caught and picked up by the other team. Without any sound the play clearly looked one way to me (a turnover with the ball going to the team on defense). I put on the sound (and rewound the game for a few seconds) and heard the announcers explaining the rule: If the ball was thrown forward and dropped it would be the end of the play, but if it were thrown backward and dropped it would go to the other team, in this case. As the trajectory of ball was very close to perpendicular, they didn't want to make any statement about what they presumed would happen after an official review. They kept saying it was too close to call and as a result the ball would stay with the offensive team. Meanwhile, having not heard this dialogue originally, I was already convinced it was a backwards pass. In the end the review agreed with me.

Without the interpretation of the announcers, I was a much more active viewer, must less affected by the hegemonic view of "both sides are equally right here" that pervades most national sports games. This makes me realize that when I do watch with the sound of the TV announcers, I am clearly affected by what they say, either influenced by their interpretations or frustrated they don't see what I see. On my own, with less hegemonic power in my head, I can take a more open look at a play and make up my own mind. (This famously happened at the end of the Super Bowl last year where the announcers claimed a play that went bad was "boneheaded," which many commentators later said was unfair because it was a 50-50 decision; today, this play is remembered as boneheaded.)

Gitlin also argues that "the way to understand things is by storing up statistics and tracing their trajectories. This is training in observation without comprehension" (259). I think in the 37 years since he wrote this, sports statistics have changed dramatically and are no longer just the province of geeky collectors of knowledge. The rise of rotisserie/fantasy sports over the past 20 years as well as technical innovations (like having more cameras and having every game in every game televised across the four major sports) has led to a dramatic rise in the variety and strength of statistical collection and analysis. I have many friends who are not particularly big sports fans who have fantasy football or baseball teams as a way to keep in touch with friends.

In baseball, new statistical categories known as Sabremetrics (named for the Society for American Baseball Research) now looks at things nobody would have considered in the 1970s. This new way of watching has changed the baseball landscape so much that last World Series (the biggest games in that sport's television year) had a simulcast of the game with sabermetricians talking about their new view of the game and tracking stats. This is to say that although Gitlin didn't know it at the time, statistic has become observation that includes comprehension—arguably more comprehension than we get without these stats. These statistics are still part of the TV/sports hegemony and viewers will still get the same amount of advertising, but now the stats generally considered to be more central to the sport and not simply "observation without comprehension."

Ultimately his point is rather silly because the only reason people would collect stats is for watching the game (or now playing a fantasy sport), and the only reason the game exists today is because of TV hegemony—that baseball, say, has fallen from being America's most popular sport to second place is because of the rise of football on TV. Yes, sports are totally part of the television hegemony, but they have figured out how to lock people into it (either on TV, radio, online fantasy games, etc.) and not let them experience it in some pure way outside the control of the networks or advertisers (which has essentially not existed for about 100 years).

1 comment:

  1. Aaron – I too was struck by Gitlin’s discussion of televised sports. In particular, I enjoyed his grumpy critique of indiscriminate commendation: “everyone is excellent at something, as at a child’s birthday party” (259). But, bitterness aside, he does make some intriguing observations that stand the test of time. For instance, the attention paid to sound seems relevant, especially how he claims that the audience isn’t trusted to come to its own conclusions (258). Certainly this idea’s borne out in the difference between watching a soccer match with American announcers and with British announcers. The Americans seek to narrate every event and fill the silence with unnecessary statistics, while the British announcers are content to let the image breathe. Faced with American announcers, I tend to adopt a counter-hegemonic practice even more drastic than Gitlin watching the broadcast picture while listening to the local radio announcer: I just hit mute. Which leads me to wonder… in what other ways could we consider the remote control a counter-hegemonic tool? Or is this device less liberating than it seems to be?