Pushing all the right buttons

From statistics to camera angles, you'll be covered

February 01, 2011|By Sam Farmer, Tribune Newspapers

Were the Packers-Steelers Super Bowl being played in 2020, this might be the view from your living room:

You want to follow Troy Polamalu? Punch that information into your three-dimensional video display and a glowing virtual disk appears under the Steelers safety and tracks his every movement.

You want to see how crisply Greg Jennings ran that route? Instruct the board to erase the players around him, and it's as if the Packers receiver is running alone.

Every conceivable statistic, bit of historical information and on-field camera angle is a few button pushes away.

No wonder the NFL is so concerned about ramping up its in-stadium product; watching the country's No. 1 sport at home is too comfortable, too convenient and, in most cases, free.

"It's always going to come down to 'How do you make it more entertaining?'" said Fred Gaudelli, producer of NBC's "Football Night in America."

"Everything we do will be done with 'How can we make this more entertaining for the viewer?' … It's really about making it more compelling."

And on what will that audience be watching? Experts agree standard-resolution TVs soon will go the way of black-and-white sets as high-definition becomes increasingly entrenched. But 3-D also is making inroads, and it's too early to tell if that will be the new standard or will be more of a fleeting trend.

David Hill, chief executive of Fox Sports, has said football eventually will be watched at home on holographic TVs allowing viewers to watch, say, the Giants and Titans dialed down to the size of chess pieces or dialed up to the size of, well, giants and titans.

Hill also has talked about wealthier fans having some type of "environment rooms" in which they watch games at home, places where they could simulate various NFL environments — although it's hard to believe anyone would try to mimic a bitter-cold day in Green Bay.

Already, people watch the NFL on everything from their phones to tablets and laptops to TVs. ESPN's Jay Rothman, producer of "Monday Night Football," can envision a day when there are separate and distinctly different broadcasts for handheld devices than for television.

"I can see where Super Bowls would be produced differently for the phone, for computers and for television," Rothman said. "I don't think television is going to be the end-all, be-all feed.

"Think about the size of the screen on your phone. Are you going to be able to see a game camera on a screen that size? The handheld feed might just be low-angle, tight, close-up feeds to fit your screen."

The camera angle that Rothman says we'll see more of in the coming years is the overhead shot from the so-called Skycam or CableCam that's suspended over the field by a web of wires. It's logical to think there one day might be two of those in games, one over the offense and the other over the defense. As it is, however, those are big enough to get in the way of a thrown or kicked ball.

This much we know: The number of TV cameras at games will continue to rise until there are enough to capture every inch of the field and sideline from every angle.

Gaudelli thinks, for some viewers, watching football at home will become more active than passive, with the experience becoming increasingly customizable. Even now in broadcasts that stream online, the networks allow viewers to pick from an array of camera angles.

In the coming years, Gaudelli said, viewers will be able to access statistics during the game, replay highlights, watch the game from the end zone, cable camera — wherever.

"I want TV to be passive; when I'm home I don't want to be producing a show," Gaudelli said. "But there's always going to be that group, and especially the younger generation, that may see it a different way. All the options will be there."

Gaudelli also thinks that in a few years it will be possible to digitally erase players in near-real time in order to get a better look at a play. That's done now by networks but can take anywhere from minutes to hours.

But not everything about broadcasts is moving forward. When the NFL moved the umpire this season from the middle of the defense to a spot behind the quarterback, it was a huge setback for TV.

The umpire wore a microphone in games, allowing him to pick up the sound of the quarterback and defensive players making their calls at the line of scrimmage and get the ambient noise of bodies colliding.

Broadcasts, Gaudelli said, "took a 20-year step backward when they moved the umpire. … We don't have any sounds."

He said the league has allowed networks to experiment by putting microphones on the chest and back of the center, and that seems to work well.

However, that isn't mandatory, and teams aren't necessarily in favor of sending out their audibles on the airwaves.

Except for that, this is the Golden Age for watching NFL games at home.

Could the Platinum Age be right around the corner?

sfarmer@tribune.com

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