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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Track on the Big Ten Network

This weekend I had two new experiences. Until now, I had never seen a track meet on an all-college-sports cable channel, and never seen a meet in hi-def. The Big Ten Network's telecasts of the men's & women's conference championships righted those two wrongs.

This was the first time track has been on the fledgling Big Ten Network, an issue I addressed previously. Both shows were recorded on the same weekend, one in Minnesota and one in Wisconsin, and so were worked by different crews, and presumably edited and produced separately as well.

Let me be clear that I know next to nothing about how televised sports are put together. I do know quite a bit about watching TV, a skill I have practiced over a lifetime.

The men's meet was on first, and started off with an electrifying race. Off a ridiculously slow pace, Jeff See kicked to a tight win in the mile. They could not have done a better job of hooking the viewer; the gun went off maybe fifteen or so seconds into the telecast. The announcing crew was decent, and included Butler By'not'e and Craig Virgin. Someone did a very good job of scouting camera placement for running events, and every final-day running event was shown start-to-finish. We were constantly kept abreast of team scoring as the meet progressed.

Where the men's meet telecast was a bit wanting was in field events. As is all too common in other TV track meets, we were shown winning attempts and little else. Even worse, the final event of the heptathlon, the 1000 meters, was not put into any context at all; either the TV crew was given no info about the event in any way, or no one on said crew anticipated a need for it.

The women's meet used Kevin Sullivan and Suzy Hamilton as color announcers, who were pretty good. This telecast showed all the running finals from both days, and covered all the events of the pentathlon in one coherent package. But like on the men's show, the field events didn't get the attention they deserve. The order of the events were sometimes jumbled, and team scores were updated much less often as a result.

These were first efforts for the Big Ten Network, and are acceptable in that context only. But it has to improve for me to think they give a damn about track at all. When a sports event is shown in its entirety, like a football or basketball game, the important things to take care of are camera placement and anticipation of the action. Track meets are a bit different, and while the producer doesn't necessarily have to be a track person to do it right, it does take someone who cares enough to think about what the viewer needs.

To illustrate what's necessary to do a track meet justice, I'll use two of ESPN's most popular shows, SportsCenter and NFL Primetime. Both are highlight shows, but more importantly each knows how to tell the story of an athletic event. From beginning to end, we are taken through the contest, shown lead changes, thrilling moments, and how the win was clinched.

Track meets are three-ring circuses, and made up of up to twenty individual contests that themselves all tie together into a larger team contest. We get to see most running events in their entirety and so summarizing them isn't necessary, but field events really cannot be done that way. Like a SportsCenter summary, each field event should be presented in a beginning-to-end format that shows lead changes and other important moments.

The men's championship show did this quite well for one event. The triple-jump was a back-and-forth struggle that came down to the final jump. But unfortunately, we were only told the distances of each jump and how it affected the standings. Why can't we get one of those graphics in the corner of the screen that tells us who's winning and what's happening now?

These are small complaints, and overall the broadcasts were good. But I bet little things like this don't get lost in the shuffle on an Indiana basketball broadcast.

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