The new weekend of NCAA playoffs is upon us. And thus far, March Madness has happily and joyously lived up to its name and reputation. But one thing has had me scratching my head.
To be clear, the games have once again been wonderful. There have been high upsets at the level of many people's #1 favorite falling to little known Northern Iowa. There's been massive surprises like Cornell making the Sweet 16.
Best of all, though, was last Thursday night. Two games had CBS in a dither - they were going on at the same time, and both were within a single point with two minutes to go - one game even went into overtime. The network kept cutting back-and-forth whenever there was an long-enough break in the action.
At first, things started normally. Studio anchor Greg Gumbel would break into the play-by-play and say, "And now we head back to Providence where Tennessee is up over San Diego State 57-56..." But when things heated up again back in the East Regional, there was Gumbel again, at an appropriate stoppage point, "Let's return to New Orleans, with Wake Forest leading Texas 73-72."
It was all very polite, all very orderly, as back-and-forth the network would cut, graciously keeping the viewer apprised where they were at any given moment. But when it got to a minute left, the games both still within a point and the action turned frenzied, CBS finally gave up all attempts of updating the audience. There wasn't time. The briefest pause was reason to jump. No more Greg Gumbel. With breathless, breakneck speed, they'd just quickly cut to the East Regional - cut back to the Midwest - cut again - cut - cut - cut - cut between games. It was hilarious. It was like watching a circus juggling act. You could sense the control room going crazy. A player would get fouled, play would stop as the teams would head to the free throw line...and they'd quickly cut to the other game. There'd be a shot, the ball would go out of bounds...and they'd cut back to the first game. Back and forth, back and forth, back and... Both games were tied or within a point with a minute now to go. Then 20 seconds left. Wonderful. Exciting. Breathtaking. The studio director was a virtuoso.
The only oddity is -
I don't have a clue why CBS was doing this. I don't have the slightest idea why they didn't simply use split-screen. Or better still, picture-in-picture. Have one game occupy the screen, with the other in a small box in the corner. When the action dictated it, just pop that little box up and make it the main game, and drop the other into a small frame. Fans could watch both games simultaneously, without forcing anyone to scream at their TV, "What is going on in the other game!!! Get back to it, hurry!!! Pleeeeeaaase!!!!"
The thing is, this has long been a bewildering complaint of mine. Not just for the current NCCA tournament, but virtually no sports coverage ever does this. It's like TV networks have all this great, whiz-bang technology that they use to cover a game - super slo-motion, 180-degree reverse angles, telestrators, superimposed instant replays, all manner of futuristic techno wizardry - and then ignore the most basic technology that's been around for over half-a-century: splitting the screen.
(This "half-a-century" comment is not exaggeration. One of the most famous moments in TV history was when Edward R. Murrow amazed America by showing the Brooklyn Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge on the screen at the same time for his See It Now broadcast. The date was November 18, 1951. And TV sports seemingly hasn't yet figured out how to do that again.)
During a football game, broadcasts will almost never isolate a camera on a linebacker, for example, or a receiver, and put him in one side of the screen while the other shows the full shot of the line of scrimmage in action at the snap. Or if a baseball player is leading off first, likely to steal, they don't put a camera on him dancing off the bag and have that in a little picture in the corner of the frame, as we watch the pitcher and batter - popping it up to full frame if he runs. Instead, we have to watch only the pitcher while just told, "There he goes..." Or if there are two games going on simultaneously, and there's a big play coming up -- why not split the screen, rather than cut away from the broadcast everyone is watching??
I've never understood it. Every other new technology at their disposal they use. But this? Something this basic? Nope.
If you do ever see it done, hit the record button because your friends won't believe you.
Networks can't think that it's too newfangled for viewing audiences who wouldn't be able to adjust to sensory overload. Probably half the new TV sets in America already have had picture-in-picture built in for the last decade. Split screen is almost 60 years old. But more to the point, with audiences today juggling their TV, Gameboy, iPod, computer and reading a book all at the same time, they've long-since grasped the concept of multi-tasking. Yet, for some reason, TV sports can't figure out how to split a screen and show two ballgames at the same time. Or simply plop a picture-in-picture to give the viewer extended action.
It's not rocket science.
Dear TV sports folk: We regularly watch CNN divide its screen into four boxes as political pundits scream over one another. We can handle split screen. Honest.
If the Brady Bunch could figure out how to split its screen into nine boxes, you can do it with just two.