No figure dominated last year’s television sports landscape like Michael Phelps, winner of eight gold medals in swimming during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. None of Phelps’ events was closer than the 100m butterfly, in which Phelps beat Serbia’s Miolrad Cavic by .01 seconds, and the event featured in this clip.
Despite – of perhaps because of – Phelps’ ubiquity, NBCOlympics.com urged viewers to "[c]atch Michael Phelps’ closest Beijing race from a whole new view": underwater. The clip begins with NBC’s Beijing logo, then dissolves quickly to an unfamiliar view of the Water Cube: looking up at the shimmering surface, the swimmers’ bodies distorted, tiny, barely visible. The starting buzzer sounds and the swimmers burst into the water, Phelps’ lanky frame clad in the sleek, high-tech black Speedo Lzr Racer suit (in contrast to most of his bare-chested competitors). His body reaches and wriggles rhythmically in the awkward butterfly stroke; he reaches, turns, and kicks off the black cross at the far wall, wriggling and reaching again and again until his final brief glide to the near wall. Throughout we hear audio that clearly doesn’t "fit": nonstop commentary from excited announcers and high-pitched cheers and whistles from the crowd impossibly augment the view from a camera moving along the pool floor. And when the race ends, the shot lingers, inexplicably, for nearly twenty seconds; we see the swimmers’ bodies, their heads invisible above the surface of the water, their arms and legs occasionally flailing the water or draped over the lane chains to stay in place.
In many ways, isn’t this footage profoundly unremarkable? It offers a privileged perspective, enabling a better view of the movement of the swimmers’ bodies and their technique than any seat in the stands. It offers conventional narration from announcers – a mixture of banal observations and useful insights, building in volume and increasing in pace as the race reaches its climax and conclusion. It shows human bodies, hopefully untainted by illicit substances, moving unnaturally in an artificial environment, adhering to arbitrarily chosen rules. It is, of course, branded with a corporate logo. Doesn’t it show, in other words, everything that we expect from television coverage of sports?
Yet isn’t part of what makes this remarkable both the absolute normality of this coverage and the direction it suggests for the future of sports coverage? It exploits technological advances that allow a seemingly infinite number of angles and indefinite access to video footage, allowing viewers the illusion of absolute choice in what to see and when. It was part of NBC’s "saturation" stratagem, in which more than 800 hours of Olympic events, recaps, and commentary were distributed across the conglomerate’s holdings to maximize viewership – under the theory that viewers can never get too much sports coverage.
What, ultimately, does this footage mean? Does it allow us to experience the purported "magic" of sports, the unrepeatable and unexpected performance of the human body – or does it undermine that experience? What do we make of this "whole new view" of sports (and is it a "whole new view")?
Thoughts on capturing the magic...
Is swimming a unique sport in that the majority of the action captured by the "whole new view" is obscured to the individuals in the stands? Because none of the big three sports in the U.S. (football, basketball, baseball) feature obscured action, I would definitely agree that it is a whole new view simply because of that dynamic.
If the main question, however, centers on the magic unearthed by the ubiquity of angles and coverage in sports broadcasting, then I would say that the experience can only be enriched by unique footage. What swimming has as its advantage, however, is the obvious underwater angle. It makes sense that a camera would be placed in that location, much as the position of the moving camera in track and field events (the one that buzzes along, matching the speech of the sprinter's strides) is equally obvious. Various other sports, it seems, have yet to find that magical angle, the one that elevates our experience of viewing. Yet, if I had to attach a magical quality to any element of sports coverage, it would most certainly be the slow-motion (and even super slow-motion) replay. When a spectacular catch is made in football or a fastball is delivered in baseball, the moment passes far too quickly for our own eyes. We know we just saw something amazing but at times, like a magic trick, we are left wondering if we can believe what we just saw. What better way, then, to uncover the unexpected performance of the human body than the slow-motion replay?
As an aside, I think part of what makes Michael Phelps' performances so amazing is that his body is more dolphin-like, apparently, than any other Olympic swimmer at the moment. Coaches and experts talk about the proportion of his torso, his incredibly flexible ankles, the ability to mimic a dolphin fluke (http://www.popularmechanics.com/outdoors/sports/4278453.html). Perhaps it is the magic of his body, in particular, that is what makes that footage so incredible.
A few comments on new camera angles
Phelp's performance in this race is surreal. His performance throughout these games was something every sports fan could appreciate because of Phelp's competitive drive that in this case will ultimately cause these Olympics to be talked about for some time. However, in response to both the original post and the previous comment, I am weary to discuss the potential for different camera angles to be used in sports. While this view of the Phelp's race can offer a different, but still special experience, what we miss is that large picture of all the swimmers side by side surrounded everywhere by a screaming crowd. Watching Phelp's win that race was a special experience because we were seeing something extraordinary being done from a viewpoint that is familiar to us. While it is always good to include different perspectives, especially one's like this where the end of the race was so close, there is still something special in the traditional perspective. This point might be more clear as a response to the comment about instant replay. While it is always fascinating to see the athleticism of a wide receiver in slow motion, the special experience again comes in seeing a spectacular play being made from the same viewpoint we used to watch hall of fame receivers make great plays before instant replay began. New and better angles are wonderful, and the experience can always be enriched with these options, but we must be careful not to lose the part of the experience that is found in watching sports from a traditional viewpoint.
Camera Angles Follow Up
I agree with Monica; these new camera angles will not and should not replace traditional live angles. A few of examples:
-The "Sky Cam" over the offense's head has certainly changed football broadcasts for the better as evidenced by its prevalence at nearly all televised football games for years. But one would never want to watch a live play strictly from the Sky Cam as it is limited to short range shots (namely shots of the pocket). A deep ball, for example, would be difficult to make out from the Sky Cam perspective.
-NBC's Sunday Night Football (and I believe ESPN's Monday Night Football as well as NFL Network Thursday night games) has an online feature that lets the consumer watch from his or her preferred camera angles via the internet (including the Sky Cam). But this is meant as a supplement for traditional live TV broadcasts, i.e. the consumer is meant to be watching the game on NBC with his laptop next to him showing other camera angles.
-Fox's NASCAR and MLB coverage have both featured "camera-in-the-ground" gimmicks. The MLB's, placed in front of the batter's box, was short lived and unpopular, mostly used a handful of times during all-star games. NASCAR's in-ground camera is still going strong and was even advertised during an NFL game as a reason to watch the Daytona 500 on Fox. The camera is even marketed as a cute little cartoon gopher peeking through the pavement. Neither of these camera angles seem to have enough momentum to change the televised production of their respective sports in the long run.
-Cameras were attached to the brim of the umpire's cap during NFL games a few years ago. The gimmick died quickly mostly because of the unwatchable fuzzy/shakey footage.
So creative camera angles are nothing new to televised sports. Save for a few seminal creations (Sky Cam, slow motion replay) these gimmicks are nothing more than attempts to gain a few extra viewers, not change the way the game is viewed. In a sport like swimming, which has virutally no sustainable television audience, these angles (and Phelps) may be all there is to attract viewers.
Interesting resistance to
Interesting resistance to Doug's point. Why is it that such inventions are either: a) attempts to gain a few viewers or b) attempts to change the way we view the game. Why can't it be both at the same time? Indeed, we usually only deem a technological development a "gimmick" after the fact, once it has failed. Rest assured, when NFL Films developed the isolation shot on the football in flight, or when the 1975 telecast of Game 6 in the World Series stayed on Carlton Fisk instead of the baseball when he hit his iconic home run, some surely thought these were gimmicks. Yet now, the isolation shot is a broadcasting standard--i.e., Doug's point about "normalization." I'm not suggesting that this under-water angle will alter the production of televised swimming in substantive ways. It probably does too much to disturb the continuity of being able to see all 8 swimmers in relation to one another. However, we shouldn't be so eager to dismiss the role TV plays in shaping our understanding of how to watch sports. Further, TV affects the way athletes play their sports. As I type, I'm watching the Australian Open. Like other major tournaments, the Aussie Open now allows players to challenge controversial calls. This policy developed in recent years only because TV gave us gradually improved technology that enables us to reproduce almost precisely where each ball landed. And now, as a viewer, waiting for the network to show you a replay is expected--i.e., "normal."
During the Beijing Olympics my friends and fellow swimmers bemoaned the lack of underwater coverage of the swimming events. We were surprised that with all the innovations in video there was so little underwater coverage, since the most interesting aspects of swimming take place underwater.
Underwater camera placement for the Olympics and World Championships is nothing new. It is merely part of the whole for broadcasting the race from various angles. What is new, is that one can get access to only the underwater clip of the race in its entirety. And watch it over and over and over......
It is a "whole new view" in that respect.
Although of much less importance to your original post, but important to me, is that these swimmers are not wriggling. They are far more graceful on television at 30 frames per second as opposed to internet video 15 fps.
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