Friday, 18 November 2011

Commentators and "context"

A short rant about football commentary, match-day summarisers
and the production values of modern-day football broadcasting

Photo: Andy Hall
Competitive sport makes for compelling television for lots of reasons. But ask a hundred sports fans why they enjoy watching live sport and not one of them will tell you they like it "because the commentators talk about things other than the actual sporting action".

Over the summer the BBC was forced to apologise for their tennis commentators "over-talking" during the Wimbledon Championships, their excuse being that the commentary team were giving "context" to the matches they were describing.

Context? Really? If people are tuning in for a quarter-final between Rafael Nadal and Andy Roddick, I think it's a safe bet to assume that they know what they're watching and why this match is occurring. If they don't, they're clearly not very bright, so let them catch up as we go along rather than drag the entire viewing audience down to their level.

Of course, the producer often exacerbates matters, with his constant cutaways to the players' wives, girlfriends, mothers, one-time lovers. A lingering shot of some woman in sunglasses tossing her hair about does rather force the commentator's hand. If he stays silent, it's just a needlessly long shot of a crowd member. Provide context he must.

The problem is particularly bad in football. Football demands 45-minute periods of concentration from the viewer. That's quite a long time for the average person to concentrate solidly. So when you're trying to focus on the game, what could be less helpful that the commentator blathering on about the home team's chairman and his business interests, transfer speculation around the players involved, the big game coming up on that channel later that day, and so on. It's so bloody distracting.

Football on the radio today is a nightmare. Decades ago radio commentators used to divide the pitch into eight squares, to provide quick and easy reference points for listeners trying to picture the game in their imaginations. (This, as you may know, is where the expression "back to square one" originates from.) But now, when you listen to a match on 5Live or wherever, not only do they spend half the time discussing other things (the centre back's hair, the away team's upcoming European fixture, all those empty seats in the director's box, the traffic they sat in on the way to the game), but they constantly go "around the grounds" getting updates from reporters at other games. These reporters, knowing they've only got 30 seconds to impress, speak so fast it makes your head hurt. They pepper their little vignettes with flowery adjectives, metaphors and a hearty dose of oomph. By the time the producer cuts back to the main game, you've forgotten what was happening, who was shooting which way and (sometimes) why you even cared in the first place.

And how often they miss goals! Think how many times you've been listening to football on the radio and they cut away to Dave Bogbrush at the Reebok for an update on the Bolton game, and when they come back Alan Green, Mike Ingham or whoever has to sheepishly say: "And while you were away there's been an almighty goalmouth scramble, Everton having several chances to score and Villa continually getting bodies in the way. The ball eventually fell to Fellaini and he's nudged it home. So it's 1-0 now with 15 minutes to half-time and Villa have a free-kick..."

I want to hear that happen *live*, you scoundrels! I want to hear the glorious chaos unfold blow by blow, not be given a bite-size summary of how it wasn't the prettiest goal the crowd will ever see. I understand we need to know what's happening in other big games, but can't somebody just slip the main commentator a piece of paper that says "Bolton goal, 28 min, Klasnic header, 1-0", rather than having to waste 30 seconds getting a full description of the goal? Save that for half-time, for goodness sake.

Must we be so incessantly, constantly entertained? It's exhausting. If it's a rank bad game, let us glory in the fact. Let us laugh at ourselves for being foolhardy enough to tune in to Birmingham v Derby.

It is virtually impossible to focus on a game if the commentators are wittering on about mooted moves to new stadiums, unrest in the boardroom, "Oh, and there's Lily Allen in the crowd... she's wearing a woolly hat and there is a bit of a chill in the air, can't say I blame her. Daughter of Keith Allen, of course, lovable rogue and a big football fan himself. No doubt she'll be straight on the phone to dad at full-time".

Shut up, man! Darren Fletcher's about to take a throw-in. Now sodding tell me about it.

  1. Barry Davies, 1971, Coventry v Everton.
  2. Brian Moore, 1985, Man Utd v Liverpool.
  3. John Motson, 2001, England v Greece.