Should Instant Replay Be Called For Interference?

Referee Pete Morelli reviews a play in the instant replay booth on Aug. 16, 2007. i i

Referees like Pete Morelli, shown here in 2007, rely on network feeds to review disputed plays, so broadcasters feel a responsibility to show replay after replay. Jamie Squire/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Referee Pete Morelli reviews a play in the instant replay booth on Aug. 16, 2007.

Referees like Pete Morelli, shown here in 2007, rely on network feeds to review disputed plays, so broadcasters feel a responsibility to show replay after replay.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Steelers' Controversial Play

In the final days before the Super Bowl, it's reasonable to think that many NFL fans are replaying the key plays of the past five months in their minds. Those scenes probably play out in high definition, freeze-framed and from multiple angles.

Replay has always been a part of the TV viewing experience, but lately it has come to dominate because of advances in technology and changes in the rules — especially the one that allows a decision made by a referee on the field to be overturned based on video.

In December, a hard-fought contest between the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers came down to one play: a pass that may or may not have been a touchdown. Within 2 minutes, the CBS broadcast of the game had shown nine replays in slow motion from at least five different angles of that one play.

"The average viewer now is used to that," says Harold Bryant, the vice president of production for CBS Sports. "They want that, and they feel they're missing something if they don't get that. So we're going to push and show you the angles."

The Zapruder Effect

On a game-changing play, a football fan wants nothing more than to engage in the intense scrutiny of videotape. But with the rise of video technology, even mundane plays are being turned into an exercise close to forensic video analysis.

Georgia State University professor Harper Cossar studies sports on television. "It's more like we're sitting in the producers' truck, watching these series of monitors, and let's watch that again and again and again," he says, "like the Zapruder film [of the Kennedy assassination], you know, that we're just watching over and over and over again, trying to reconstruct what happened rather than just ... getting into the poetry, the flow, the beauty of the game."

Like a coach with a bag of trick plays, the football producer has to know when to use technology.

Fred Gaudelli, the producer of NBC's Sunday Night Football, will be producing the Super Bowl.

"I have a big toy box, but, you know, I rarely play with a lot of these toys because, unless there is a specific relation to what just happened on the field, I'm just breaking it out to say, 'Look at my toy and look how I can play with it' ... and it really doesn't enhance anybody's enjoyment of what they're watching," he says.

'Emptying The Bucket'

The digitally superimposed yellow line to indicate the first down, the small graphic to constantly remind viewers of time, down and distance — these are the types of toys that NFL viewers demand on each play.

To avoid the Zapruder effect with instant replay, producers have to be judicious, but sometimes their hands are forced.

After a disputed play, the league does not have its own video to review — it relies on the network feed. So when there is a close call, the broadcasters feel a responsibility to show replay after replay. Bryant has a phrase for that: "emptying the bucket."

The networks also empty the replay bucket on any close play that might be challenged. Gaudelli says it's their duty.

"You have this obligation to provide as many looks at what could be, you know, something controversial or something the officials may not have gotten right ... for the benefit of the coach because you are the 'replay system' for both teams," he says.

Yet even with the benefit of all those replays, the officials analyzing the Steelers' pass play had a daunting task. The announcers criticized the decision to rule it a touchdown, and a great many viewers thought the referees got the call wrong.

So much time and technology spent, and still no definitive answer about that particular touchdown. What can you say to disappointed fans except that tough breaks, like lots of instant replays, are just a part of the game?

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