MICHELE NORRIS, host:
In this Super Bowl week, it's reasonable to think that many NFL fans are replaying in their minds the key plays of the season. Those scenes probably play out in high definition, freeze-frame, and from multiple angles. Replays long have been a part of the TV viewing experience. But as NPR's Mike Pesca reports, changes in rules and advances in technology have taken replay to new levels.
MIKE PESCA: In 1967, the French theorist and filmmaker Guy Debord wrote that everything that was lived directly has moved away into a representation. 1967 was also the year that the first Super Bowl was played. I know, I know that talking about the Super Bowl and a French theorist and filmmaker Guy Debord in the same breath is so cliched. But Guy turned out to have been a pretty prescient guy when it comes to the NFL, especially since the institution of a rule that allows for a referee's on-field decision to be overturned based on video.
(Soundbite of NFL game)
Unidentified Sports Commentator: Is it in the endzone? It is in or outside? They're going to mark it outside. And I guarantee that people are going to want to look at this one.
PESCA: This is the CBS broadcast of December's game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers. The hard-fought contest came down to one play, a pass that may or may not have been a touchdown. Within two minutes, the CBS broadcast team had shown nine replays from at least five different angles in slow motion of that one play. Harold Bryant is the vice president of production for CBS Sports.
Mr. HAROLD BRYANT (Vice President of Production, CBS Sports): The average viewer now is used to that. 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.
PESCA: 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.
Dr. HARPER COSSAR (Professor, Moving Image Studies, Georgia State University): 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 like the Zapruder film, you know, that we're just watching over and over and over again, trying to reconstruct what happened, rather than just sort of getting into the poetry, the flow, the beauty of the game.
PESCA: Like a coach with bag of trick plays, the football producer has to know when to use his technology. Fred Gaudelli is the producer of NBC's "Sunday Night Football." He'll be producing the Super Bowl.
Mr. FRED GAUDELLI (Producer, "Sunday Night Football," NBC): 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. You know, I mean, it really doesn't enhance anybody's enjoyment of what they're watching.
PESCA: 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 every play. But to avoid the Zapruder effect with instant replay, producers have to be judicious, and sometimes their hands are forced. After a disputed play, the league does not have its own video to review. They rely on the network feed. So when there is a close call, the broadcasters feel a responsibility to show replay after replay. Harold Bryant has a phrase for that.
Mr. BRYANT: You're what we call emptying the bucket whenever we can if there's a challenge.
PESCA: The networks are also emptying the replay bucket on any close play that may be challenged. Fred Gaudelli says it's their responsibility.
Mr. GAUDELLI: 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, you know, for the benefit of the coach because you are the, quote, unquote, "replay system" for both teams.
PESCA: Yet, even with the benefit of all those replays, the officials analyzing the Steelers' pass play had a daunting task.
(Soundbite of NFL game)
Unidentified Sports Commentator #1: (Unintelligible) possession of the ball - we have a touchdown.
Unidentified Sports Commentator #2: It's a touchdown for Pittsburgh.
PESCA: The announcers criticized the decision, and a great many viewers thought the referees got it wrong. So much time and technology spent and still no definitive answer about that particular touchdown. What can you say to a disappointed fan except that tough breaks, like lots of instant replay, are just a part of the game? Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.
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