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

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