Lovely crowd shots. Can we cut back to the action?

RANDALL NORTHAM fails to understand television directors’ obsession with showing scenes of spectators at sports events, when all viewers want to see is the action on the field

I watched three rugby matches on the BBC last weekend: Wales v France and England v Ireland in the Six Nations, then Treviso v Ulster in the Celtic League.

It may add "colour" and "atmosphere" to the "occasion", but can we cut back to the action now please?
It may add “colour” and “atmosphere” to the “occasion”, but can we cut back to the action now please?

I deliberately chose to watch the first two, but I stumbled across the Celtic League match on the BBC’s Red Button and was whisked back to a land time had forgot.

The matches at the Millenium Stadium and Twickenham were afforded the full BBC Sport treatment, and the same excesses were employed by the Welsh and English authorities in staging them. There were the shooting flames, the loud music, all the paraphernalia employed by marketing people to create “atmosphere”, when really no extra “atmosphere” is needed. A Six Nations crowd creates its own sense of expectation.

I read that loud music was used at Twickenham after each score. What idiot dreamed up that one? Presumably the same idiot who decided music was an essential part of modern athletics meetings.

The BBC’s coverage of the Wales and England matches wasn’t quite so theatrical but they still employed a cast of thousands in front of the cameras. You have to have a presenter, three pundits, another pundit working the video analysis and Jill Douglas to ask the questions. I can cope with that. The pundits are more articulate than those used for athletics, and there is some time to fill.

But why do broadcasters insist on repeatedly cutting away to shots of the crowd? The people caught on camera inevitably catch sight of themselves on a big screen somewhere, and then begin to wave even more extravagantly. At which point the director decides to use pictures from another camera.

I am aware that I am coming over as an Old Fart, but I really don’t understand this practice. The people shown  can’t see themselves on TV – although they could have recorded the match in the hope that their daffodil hats, Jimmy wigs or John Bull face paint is too exciting for a BBC producer to ignore.

Because surely the majority of viewers don’t tune into the match to watch people in the crowd? I accept that sometimes the commentary and opinion has to reflect the fact that not everybody watching is an expert. But surely no one switches on by accident and stays watching because the director has found a drunken Irishman asleep?

Jonathan Davies: a reliable pundit
Jonathan Davies: a reliable pundit

This obsession with the “drama” of the occasion happens in athletics when the director lingers on the winner of a race, ignoring the efforts of the rest of the field. A modern-day version of the old Colemanball: “How cares who’s third?” As it happens, I – and I suspect that many others watching – do.

The BBC’s treatment of sport gets more and more theatrical. We had cheerleaders posing as commentators at the Winter Olympics, and we have obligatory interviews with athletes struggling to get their breath back. Sometimes they don’t manage to remember their media training, which can make Phil Jones’s questioning worthwhile for a change.

Too often, we are subjected to use of the crass theory that because someone was good at sport they can talk about it intelligently and intelligibly – stand up Alan Shearer, Colin Jackson and Robbie Savage. There are others.

Of course, the BBC does employ some ex-sports people who are good at punditry. The weekend reminded me again how perceptive Jonathan Davies is, and how unbiased. He was as willing to give credit to the French as he was to Wales’s players.

What’s this got to do with Treviso v Ulster on the Red Button?

Well there was one commentator – I didn’t catch his name because I switched on 10 minutes into the match, but he sounded as if he was from Northern Ireland – who was as one-eyed as you can be. I suspect he was commentating from London, or Salford, on a feed from Italian television. The local director concentrated purely on the game. There were no crowd shots, no attempt at added “drama”, and at half-time the screen went blank because there was no action to show. The commentary restarted only when play began again.

It reminded me of when I was in Athens in the early 1970s watching a football match on Greek television. It was in black and white, I couldn’t understand a word of the commentary and when the final whistle went the programme stopped. Heaven.

The Red Button coverage was just like this although the commentator’s “Norn Iron” accent was understandable. I accept that half-time space has to be filled by broadcasters, so pundits are here to stay. But do we have to have shots of the crowd? Can’t the BBC, and other broadcasters, go back to covering sport as sport and not trying to add “drama” to the occasion?

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Mon Mar 24: SJA British Sports Journalism Awards, Grand Connaught Rooms, London
Mon Apr 14: SJA Spring Golf Day: Croham Hurst GC, Surrey. Booking details to be announced