We honestly can't remember if we've posted about this before, but it's worth revisiting the networks who bring us the sweet honeyed goodness that is college football in order to pat the asses of those who do a fine job and slam those who make immense amounts of money doing little to help the viewer and, at worst, damage an otherwise fine product.
And don't make the point that you don't watch games in person, because you are a rank, gin-smelling liar if you say so. (No comments, wifey. We've switched to vodka lately.) Everyone watches games in person because, unless you're blessed with multiple doubles, unlimited resources, and the stamina of Tara Reid on a three-day bender, you simply can't attend every game you want to see, especially if you happen to be the kind of glutton who's jacked about that WAC game that comes on at 12:30 pm E.S.T.
"Dude! The 12:30 Utah-State/Hawaii game on the Deuce! Thank god for Depends, man!"
This won't include announcing teams, which we're hoping to go over with during the season with mighty Michigan blogger and erstwhile hip-hop mogul Straight Bangin'. So, network by network, in order of quality of presentation:
1. ESPN. The worldwide leader lives up to its name with its college coverage, if only because they don't seem very inclined to muck around with it too much. As it will with any of these reviews, coverage begins with an oft-overlooked and vital component: video standard. (This is the primary reason NBC is at the dead damn bottom of this list.) ESPN runs a clean, crisp video standard where the grass glows a subtle, friendly green by day and becomes a luminous carpet at night. The helmets sparkle with the reflected glare of the floodlights and the fans can often be seen individually with startling clarity, even if you really didn't want to see every ripple of the manboobs on the West Virginia fan in the third row. Player motion is clear but not overly sharp, and it somehow manages to be easy on the eyes and snappy at the same time. It's the best of both worlds, ocularly-speaking.
ESPN also does great camera work--they always seem to have a great angle on the play, the call, the penalty, the celebration, all done without the kind of "rectal-cam on the qb" overload you get on, say, FOX's NFL broadcasts. (They do great work, but man, there's a diminishing return on the number of cameras on the field, especially when they catch endless shots of lineman dripping sweat off their asses.) They have the right idea of scale, too: running plays are often caught with the narrow-angle, while passing plays pull back to catch the graceful arc of the ball flying downfield. Their music is conservative but classy, which is just fine since the ESPN Game Day music now has a Pavlovian effect on its viewers that makes any other tunes mere frippery by comparison.
If there's one knock on their technique, it's the lack of atmosphere, conveyed much more convincingly in CBS's and ABC's broadcasts of the games. There's precious few shots of the crowd, the band, and the surrounding environs, which can give ESPN's games an antiseptic feel, as if they were broadcast from the same stadium every time. Ditto for the sound, which while not underwhelming, certainly overemphasizes the sound of the booth over the ambient noise of the stadium. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the VaTech game a few years ago when God passed judgement on Corso by zapping his car with lightning. We had two reactions watching this happen:
1. Oh, but for timing, dear lord, and...
2. That's the first time we've seen anything outside the stadium on an ESPN broadcast.
ESPN also gets to the top of this list by not letting Chris Berman within six miles of college football, thus helping me focus on the game instead of fantasizing about hitting him with a chaise lounge.
2. CBS. Primarily charged with bringing the SEC to life on the small screen, CBS responds by taking its cues from the raucous atmosphere of the conference by turning each game into a Road Warrior replay: lots of close-ups delivered via a video standard that favors motion over clarity. Things do look a little fuzzier on CBS--especially in really bright sunlight--which sometimes detracts from the action (when it's overcast, for example), but sometimes accentuates, as well. (Games in the Swamp have a humid, foggy haze around them on CBS, with the sun reflecting through visible heat waves. That's a pretty damn cool effect, especially on a defender wearing a visor. ) Blurry, frenzied action is where CBS excels, and their package does the best job conveying the sheer tub-thumping hullaballoo of a Saturday gameday environment.
CBS also goes to great lengths to get viewers in as close to the action as possible, resulting in tons of John Woo closeups and frantic camera-switching by the directors mid-play. (If ESPN is the workmanlike Ang Lee of college broadcasting, CBS is certainly its John Woo.) Consequently, you get lots of superb shots on brutal hits, run plays, and celebrations. (CBS broadcast the UGA/Auburn game last year, the one with the Cruciatus Curse hit from Junior Rosegreen on Reggie Brown. We're convinced that it looked even worse than it really was thanks to CBS earhole camera angles and amped up field mikes.) The downside is a camera crew susceptible to falling for playfakes, which can take the entire viewing audience out of the play for a precious second while the ballcarrier speeds downfield for a crucial gain.
Chow Yun-Fat, the CBS College Football Coverage of Hong Kong action stars
The downside to CBS's approach is lack of clarity, to be sure. The big upside is a vivid video/audio facsimile of near-total chaos unfolding before your eyes. The buzz of the game is what CBS captures most. The best word in summation may be gladitorial; plenty of on-field cameras angled up to capture towering stands packed with lunatic fans, loud, fuzzed-out audio that sometimes overpowers the announcers, and cool music to boot, with emphasis on the marching bands during the game and subtly hip choices for interstitial spots (we swear we heard The Flaming Lips' "Race for the Prize" in one of their spots last year, set against slow-motion shots of running backs pounding through tackles. It made us weep like a tiny girl.)
3. ABC The classicist's pick, ABS goes retro whenever they can, sticking to the tried and true in a mode befitting their Big Ten heavy schedule. The video standard is nice, if a bit on the shiny side, but unlike CBS they seem to be at their best in overcast, crappy weather like the Ohio State-Michigan game, which seems to played every year beneath a pall of funeral pyre smoke. (Don't lie--the whole death and obsession thing just gives the matchup a little more Wagnerian drama, right? All that game needs is a bellowing woman with gigantic tits and a helmet with horns on it to enter through the tunnel in the fourth quarter to complete the picture.)
ABC's got the Wagnerian drama thing down. Unfortunately, like opera, it can make you sleepy.
The camera angles, too, stick with the classic: wide open spaces covered by suspicious cameramen who keep it all in the picture at the cost of detail. ABC's cameramen are the least likely to be fooled by play-fakes, but that's also because they're pulled back so wide you'd swear the teams were playing on a CFL-sized field. This does help the real x's and o's geeks, who must smash table lamps every time they try to decipher a defense in a CBS broadcast, but gives the game a monumental feel that, while grand, creates a distance between the viewer and the game not found on other networks.
What they do have in scads is majesty--ABC does the best job at conveying the spaces and size of the game, especially on those sunny West Coast broadcasts of USC games, or from gloomy Midwestern brawling pits like Lincoln, Nebraska or the Shoe. (Just look at all their...majesty.) But the slow camera work, tedious replays, and mundane music straining to evoke paegantry, dammit! wears on the viewer after a quarter or two. ABC is the traditionalist's pick, which also earns it the award for "easiest to nap to" in our survey.
4. FOX/TBS: We honestly haven't had the years of obsessive experience with these relative newbies that we have with the big four. FOX doesn't really have the same panache with the college game as they do with the pro game, but that's likely a matter of resource allocation rather than ineptitude; they've done a great job with every sport they've touched, and will probably do the same with college football. TBS does a decent job from what we've seen. Whatever they do, by default they're both better than the abysmal cowflop produced by our unqualified bottom-feeder...
9. NBC. You may notice the jump in sequence there. That's intentional, since you could draft four other networks in between FOX/TBS and NBC-at least four others-and they would do a superior job to the feces NBC pipes out of it satellite dishes. The pits, the worst, the crap five standard deviations away from crappy, slipshod, junky, shitty, amateur, mealy-apple bad shitty pile of shittiness carried to the nth degree of mediocre shittitude. That's how bad NBC's broadcasts are. The Food Network could scramble a better crew in 24 hours than the Peacock manages to every year; in fact, we're betting Mario Batali would do a nice job on color commentary, as well as making a nice Sardines Amalfitano with Penne for the crew at halftime.
Could do a better job than anyone on NBC and cook at the same time.
NBC starts off on a bad foot a video standard straight out of Betamax porno. Things look gummy and dim, even in bright sunlight, and in overcast weather games might as well be played in caves. Add in cameras set on random scan--ooh, look! The guy with the ball! Might want to catch him once in a while!--that focus so much on the offense that the other side of the ball disappears from action until flying into the foreground to make a tackle. The mikes all sound like they have socks stretched over them, leaving a muffled, watery, indistinct roar as NBC's excuse for atmosphere. Their pregame segments reek of the same hysterical hyperbole as NBC's Olympic segments ("Chase Bonner overcame his crippling addiction to video games and masturbation the way all champions do--with courage!") Their music is Notre Dame's, which would be fine if Notre Dame wasn't insulted implicitly by association with such a crapulent product, and even then their deplorable video standard leaves them sounding like they're playing the tunes off a battered 8-track in the back.
Given the choice between watching a game on NBC or cutting our own toe off with pinking shears...well, we'd watch the game, of course. We like our toes, thank you very much, and it's still football, after all. But after years of this abject failure to turn out a decent broadcast, we're astonished Irish fans haven't set fire to the NBC trucks at games. Yet.
(NB: The Irish are supposedly getting their games in HDTV this year. We'll believe it when we see it, still convinced that the Peacock will find a way to destroy any progress it makes, like, say, installing blowhard NASCAR commentator Bennie Parsons as the new football color guy, or worse yet, hiring Berman away from ESPN.)