Monday, March 10, 2008

Three Men in a Box

Anyone watching the Channel 9 Cricket coverage from Down Under over the past couple of years will be aware that the station have now adopted a 'safety in numbers' approach to commentary. Gone are the days of two men behind the mic - now we have a line up of three, so that the handover of shifts there are so many names flying around that you're half way through the new over before anyone's had a chance to clear their throat.

I've ranted on about the art of commentary before here, but to summarise, all you need for effective TV cricket coverage is a commentator, who describes what's going on and a 'colour' man, who explains it. That's it. It applies to all sports, not just cricket. Anything else is overkill - with the exception of when the two man line-up have a guest in the box with them.

If you set your expectations to 'very low' - let's call it the 'Allott/Willis' end of the evolutionary chain, you just want the commentators to make the odd remark, but keep it mundane enough so you aren't tempted to kick in your TV, or turn the sound down and put on some Napalm Death for some soothing light relief. Further up the scale, a decent pairing can actually add value to the watching experience. Athers and Holding for example or the ''banter with an edge to it that could likely end in someone getting an off-air slap'' of Hussain and Botham.

Putting three men on at the same time creates far too much 'clutter' and limits the time each of them has to make points, or expand on thoughts and themes. Watching the Perth test in Australia last winter, for example, I didn't actually realise that Richie Benaud was behind the mike half the time. Anything he had to say was drowned out by such legendary erudite wordsmiths like Bill Lawry and Ian Healey. It was a bit like The Beatles letting Ringo do all the singing. Even at the age of 154, they should be making as much use of Benaud as they can - it's hardly a tough call when the alternatives include Tony Greig.

The problem of the three man line up is that they are all trying to justify their existence and make the game sound exciting, when sometimes it patently isn't. If nothing happens in their half hour microphone stint, why not just accept it and be quiet.

Are Channel 9 scared that some people will switch off if they don't get three voices continually assaulting the senses with incessant waffle. Sadly, it's only a matter of time until Sky follow suit. They are occasionally moving to the three man phalanx already when a third man starts going on about technical stuff. Obviously a reaction to Simon 'Bilbo Baggins' Hughes in the troglodyte subterranean burrow used effectively, by C4.

It's like a variation of the old joke - ''How many commentators does it take to change a lightbulb?' Answer ''Three. One to change it, one to explain how he did it with such delicate timing, and another to suggest that no one has done it quite that well since Viv Richards did it at Adelaide in 1982.''

At a simple level it's overmanning that would make a 70's print union leader blush. More pertinently, it's a worrying sign of things to come here in the UK.

After all, Sky Football here in the UK are already at the stage where they have FOUR on the half time panel - to cover a twenty minute period, a third of which is going to be filled with ads. Richard Keys, Uncle Fester (Ray Wilkins) Graeme Souness and David Platt were one recent line up. None of the ex players could have said more than fifty words.

There's only one 'three man line up' I'd like to witness. Let's have Ian Botham and Ian Chappell finally sharing some airtime - together with someone emolient between them to keep the peace. Someone like Matthew Hayden!


David Barry said...

I like to have chat during cricket commentary (at least during the dull periods), and the three commentators do this much better than two. Between the extra chat and the two-second delay that Channel Nine use to dissuade people from listening to the radio, I often listened to the TV rather than the radio two summers ago. (I've been in France this Australian summer, so I don't know what it's been like this season.)

It does mean that Richie's not so effective, but Richie will be retired soon anyway.

I wouldn't want the number to go any higher though. The worst panel I've seen was in France 2's coverage of the Superbowl. France 2 are a public broadcaster and quite limited in how much advertising they're allowed. So almost every US commercial break, they went to their panel. The panel had at least six experts, plus a host directing discussion.

Mark said...

American football tends to attract those sort of numbers. The usual panel for one of the US national channels covering the NFL is five or six - College Football manages to get by with 'only' four.

You're right - some chat is fine, especially when it actually adds something by being informative or entertaining, but 'chat for chats sake' - which is what you get in a lot of Australian coverage, just grates.

Tony said...

That both David Platt AND David Pleat are commentators could get confusing. At least only David Platt was a curb crawler.

Tony said...

I always thought the Fox NFL commentary team of Aikman, Buck and Collinsworth was one of the best going around, but Fox demurred and dumped Collinsworth, which was a pity.

The Fox pre-game and half-time panels are a waste of time. JB, Howie, Bradshaw and Jimmy is one big mouth too many. And their 'aren't we a wacky bunch of funsters' dynamic is pox.

The ESPN pre-game used to be shithouse, but the recent one with Chris Berman, Tom Jackson, Chris Mortensen, Key Johnson and Bill Parcells really started to hit its stride by the second half of the season. But the play re-enactments were dopey.

The ESPN game callers, Mike Tirico, Ron Jaworski and Tony Kornheiser are a bit hard to handle.

I prefer the other Fox team of Dick Stockton and Moose Johnson.

The NFL Channel's Bryant Gumbel and Collinsworth ended up being fantastic. Collinsworth needs no comment, but Gumbel was a revelation returning to commentary after his current affairs days; great rhythm, doesn't say too much, very smooth.

King Cricket said...

One of the great things about cricket is the amount of time you have to get to know people. That includes commentators.

You find out who the best commentators are when they're given room for manoeuvre. With three guys jockeying for position there's no such luxury.

Mark said...

Tony's comment reminds me of the time England's midfield line up was Le Tissier, Platt, Batty and Gascoigne.... Matty, Platty, Batty and Fatty!!