April 26, 2013

Give viewers the no-commentary option

It will challenge commentators to get better, and give fans a choice

As I watched a large crowd fill Eden Gardens again and saw the Spidercam move gently over them to emphasise the size of the gathering, I sat back and wondered how much our telecasts have changed over the years.

I remember the time when we had tapes, editors logged key moments in a log book, edit machines were huge and took a long time to deliver output, and cameras could not get all that close to the action. Why, Doordarshan Hyderabad used to cover matches on film and we used to have a spot-the-player contest!

The spin-vision cameras in the mid-nineties were a revolution. Then everything went digital - edit machines fitted into briefcases, ultra-motion arrived, graphics were revolutionised, Hawk-Eye got conversations going. High-definition television is just sensational, and now this Spidercam, which, like a giant aerial snake, gives you close-ups and a sweep that was unimaginable before.

Note, though, that all these changes are technology-driven and have affected visuals more than they have words and voices. The pictures are better than they have ever been, and they will be better with every passing year, but the voices that add to them haven't changed much. You could, of course, argue that we have come a long way from Richie Benaud's legendary minimalist style to Danny Morrison, who is almost Formula 1 in comparison. And while it is interesting that both have their share of supporters, commentary is not really too different from how it used to be.

Two recent events got me thinking about whether things couldn't be different on that front as well. DTH now allows you a choice of camera angles. Earlier this year, when Sky didn't have a commentary team in India, viewers in England had the option of listening either to their panel based in a studio in London or the world feed coming from the ground. It empowered viewers and allowed them to watch a telecast as they preferred rather than as was forced on them over the years. And then earlier this week on ESPNcricinfo's Huddle, Jarrod Kimber wondered why, as a cricket nerd (his word, not mine) he couldn't get a "nerdy" commentary for the IPL rather than the one he was stuck with. In effect he was saying: give me a choice of commentary and let me choose which one I like. Don't lose me with a one-size-fits-all broadcast.

On the assumption that the viewer, who effectively funds the telecast, must get what he feels he deserves, I believe we can go further and actually offer a no-commentary option. Currently the viewer gets a sound-mixed version where the commentary comes along with the sounds of the stadium - the crowd, the chatter and that of ball hitting bat. I believe we should be able to offer an option where the viewer gets everything except the commentary: full ambient sound, all graphics, replays, everything except the commentary.

There are two reasons for my suggestion. First, the viewer must have a choice that makes economic sense to offer, and second, the commentator must be challenged, for it is out of this challenge that he will come closer to the viewer.

When I auditioned as a 19-year-old, I discovered to my shock that some of the senior commentators didn't really worry too much about whether a ball was outside off or leg, whether it was a cut or a drive, and whether the fielder at cover was Murthy or Ahmed

Two incidents in my formative years lead me to believe this can only be beneficial to everyone. In my second, or maybe third, Ranji Trophy match, when I was a young engineering student opting to do commentary during pre-exam study holidays, we were in a makeshift position in the middle of the crowd at the Railway Ground in Secunderabad. About 20 feet below us, transistors in hand, were spectators seeing exactly what we were describing. Every time one of us wasn't accurate enough, they would look up and tell us what they thought of us. At their most polite they said, "Abbe, andha hai kya, nai dikhra? [Are you blind?]". I felt I was in an exam, with the audience marking me after every ball, and to be honest, I enjoyed the experience. And even though the sample size was small, by the end of the game the programme executive knew who was acceptable to the audience and who wasn't.

It did something else. It kept us on guard and forced us to be accurate. Now you might imagine that accuracy is mandatory for a radio broadcaster anyway, but it wasn't always like that in the pre-televised era of sports.

When I went for my audition as a 19-year-old, I discovered to my shock that some of the senior commentators there didn't really worry too much about whether a ball was outside off or leg, whether it was a cut or a drive, and whether the fielder at cover was Murthy or Ahmed. They were your only access to the action and you would never know if they were right or wrong (unless, of course, they were in the commentary position I talked about earlier). It was a great power to possess but it was a habit that proved costly when pictures arrived for a lot of matches and people could now watch a game on television and listen to it on radio. The moment that happened, the radio commentator was challenged and had to get better. These were wonderful lessons for me early in life: that you must be challenged in order to get better.

And that is why, with a technology revolution in television, and indeed in all media, I believe the viewer must continue to be empowered. A commentator must be heard not because the viewer has no choice but because he chooses to listen. If we find that viewers prefer the no-commentary option, or even if a significant number do, it means we need to take a look at ourselves again. If the vast majority choose the commentary option (and even there I believe we should be able to go Jarrod's way and offer commentary options, like we now have camera options on some platforms), then maybe we are doing something right. Either way the broadcaster is challenged to stay relevant and, like a batsman, to be on top of his game all the time.

I foresee other innovations coming. Maybe one day not all commentators need to be in the commentary box, you never know. But like the visuals, and those manning the visuals, need to keep pace with the times, so too must the sounds and those creating them.

As I discovered all those years ago, it will only hurt those who don't want to be challenged and will ultimately benefit the viewer. Who knows, we might get startling results like we have with ultra-motion cameras and the Spidercam. I think it is an experiment worth trying.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. He is currently contracted to the BCCI. His Twitter feed is here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • am on April 30, 2013, 7:25 GMT

    Thank you Harsha Bhogle sir for this article. I am happy if I am given that option to block some of the TV commentators. For example: Ramiz Raja, Saurav Ganguly, VVS, and of course few others. Shastri , Sidhu, Gavaskar , and few others bring the excitement to the game when they "react" to a great shot at crunch moment like the viewers. Like someone pointed out it will give broadcaster an idea whom to be given pink slip. That way viewer has discretion and peace of mind. We don't have to listen to all rubbish Ganguly talks. Sidhu is always full of energy and the kind of one liners he comes up adds to the entertainment. With his sense of humor and enthusiasm it is enjoyable. It is fun. Muting the commentator is nice option than Muting the TV. :) Definitely looking forward to it. And Harsha sir please keep it simple. Your commentary is like essay writing with good detailed explanation to things which others might miss but the way you present it makes lot of difference. Thanks.

  • Kannan on April 29, 2013, 9:41 GMT

    I've been particularly impressed by the new English commentator on the block, Simon Taufel, the umpire. He is articulate and can very intelligently provide insights into batting, bowling, umpiring decisions, the pitch conditions, the cricket rules, their experiences in various parts of the world, etc. An intelligent umpire knows the game much more than any intelligent player, simply because he's got to concentrate on every ball during the entire length of the match. He understands the temperament of the batsmen and bowlers and more importantly that of the captains. He can also gauge the " collective emotional mood" on the field at a critical moment in the match and comment on decisions taken at such times. He can connect the audience to this and thereby help them connect more with the play instead of watching the match disconnectedly. While the cameras help in removing the disconnect to a certain extent, an umpire's take and commentary on this would be truly valuable insight!

  • Thewalker on April 29, 2013, 9:32 GMT

    As an aside:

    I remember my uncle telling me about Vizzy. He would talk about his experiences for a long while and wind up saying," While I was telling you all this, 3 wickets have fallen, 22 runs have been scored". Bulletin or running commentary?

    An aside to an aside:

    BBC Test match special was indeed special. CMJ and Brian Johnston, with their crisp, "I say!" to summarise a wonderful cover drive were a treat. On the other hand, we had a few who felt compelled to fill the silence with their,"And the players walk on to the field, the sun is bright, the grass is green, the players all in white, and here is Holding to Gavaskar...." leaving the listener gasping for breath just listening to these chaps going on and on.

    Anyway, cricket is the richer for these experiences.

  • Thewalker on April 29, 2013, 9:26 GMT

    Good one, Harsha! I listened to the fake-Australian accent by the English commentator on radio for the CSK-KKR match on the 28th and was appalled. He had the cheek to say that Bisla and Kallis are alike in physical stature and the gall to confuse Morris for Hussey and then promptly retracted and then retracted again. Morris and Hussey do not look anywhere alike, for sure.

    He messed up reading the scorecard, got the run rates wrong and said, "Bisla scored 88 odd runs" last year.

    How DOES one get these commentary gigs? I can do a much better job and still speak English like we Indians do.

  • Kannan on April 29, 2013, 8:33 GMT

    I've never liked listening to the Indian radio or TV commentators over the past 42 years. When I listen, I like to listen to the way a person presents his thoughts...his speech pattern. I find the Indian commentators without exception to be depressing rather than uplifting in their speech pattern. They use the word "pressure" in so many of their sentences, that it's frankly stressful listening. I've on several occasions put the TV on mute. I've also found the Indian TV commentators advocating techniques on how the opposition need to take various Indian batsmen out as a show of "expertise" or "inside knowledge". I'm yet to see an Indian commentator get into specifics while being critical of Indian performance. For instance, I'm yet to hear any of these so called experts mention that Indians can't bowl yorkers or don't have the ability to maintain line discipline while bowling. They will not say a single word when SRT goes through a 4th inning brain freeze. Who then wants to listen?

  • sameer on April 28, 2013, 22:07 GMT

    The problem Mr. Bhogle is that we are left wondering if commentators are 'calling the action' or 'selling the product' on a Tele-shopping network! While someone like yourselves is a bit more balance, others simply start marketing IPL. What value is a commentator if he cannot give a bold and preferably unbiased opinion? What good is it if individual boards and networks pass diktats on what 'not to say' while on air.? (Think DRS please) Having heard the 'huddle' you talked about above, here is a simple question cricket broadcasters should consider: You talk about "market research" as the driving force behind current direction of IPL product? But are these channels prepared to loose us "nerdy/core/die-hard audience" who follow every cricket encounter religiously to attract the casual viewer? Us "small minority" who are put off by this below-par coverage and yet take time out to comment here hoping something would change!!

  • Tom on April 27, 2013, 23:46 GMT

    On Sky, the cricket is delivered in 5.1 surround sound.... with commentary on the centre channel. I mute that speaker when Botham gets too irritating :)

  • Roy on April 27, 2013, 22:50 GMT

    Watching most of my cricket on Sky, I get easily fed up of one or two of their commentators who I find far too repetitive, especially as they are on so often during english season. Answer - listen to those you like then hit Harsha's hush button when the twits who keeps saying "that WILL be four" when the ball is already over the rope, comes on.

  • Dummy4 on April 27, 2013, 19:22 GMT

    I have loved the commentary of Sushil Doshi, Tony Greig and Harsha Bhogle. So, till the time Harsha Bhogle gives commentary, cricket fans would not mind listening. Otherwise, it will be only hearing (where people will not actually take notice of what commentators have said).

  • Kris on April 27, 2013, 18:14 GMT

    Tim Lane, Jim Maxwell & a few (can't remember names) were so good; you hardly feel bored even though you're not watching, just listening. Can't help being nostalgic about the ABC commentary then.