The Myth of Liveness in College Football

26 Oct


John Caldwell’s chapter “Excessive Style” from his book, Televisuality: Style, Crisis, and Authority in American Television challenges the theoretical obsession with the “liveness” of television. He states that, “Television’s “most distinctive function [is] the live transmission of events … The now of the television event is equal to the now of the actual event.” (29). This type of one-to-one relationship makes sense intuitively, in  that what is happening on the television screen during a live event does get transmitted to the viewer with little to no delay; however, this idea becomes complicated when considering the level of regulation imposed on events while they are taking place. Caldwell presents a compelling example of this when he states, “Even the domestic broadcasting of live and unscripted media events—like ABC’s Monday Night Football, or major league baseball—are comprehensively planned, scripted, and rehearsed; are in fact highly regulated and rigidly controlled performances, fabricated to fit a restricted block of viewing time.” (31). Staying with Monday Night Football, I take his example to be referring to features like the announcing, commercial breaks, choreography, and essentially every aspect of the event that is not the act of playing football. However, even the flow, or the liveness, of any televised game is compromised by scheduled “media timeouts,” which frequently leave players and coaches milling about for several minutes throughout games. Anyone who has been to a televised football game should be familiar with these periods of dead time in which the game is stopped to allow for commercial breaks for the home audience.

But what happens when “media timeouts” begin to not only affect the perception of liveness for a television audience, and actually come into direct conflict with the progress of a game? This was the case for the University of Notre Dame football in 2010 when coach Brian Kelly took over – installing a no huddle, up tempo offense. This means that there is significantly less time between plays during an offensive drive. Designed to disadvantage a defense, such a strategy also directly clashes with the advertising interests of major networks by eliminating pauses that are traditionally taken advantage of by networks for advertising. Media timeouts suddenly became less available during long offensive drives. Notre Dame has an extremely lucrative, independent televising contract with NBC (They are unaffiliated with any major college football conference – allowing them to orchestrate such a deal independently.). Coach Kelly’s offensive scheme creates economic concerns in the restriction of advertising opportunities for a network paying top dollar to broadcast Notre Dame football (along with the accompanying advertisements) in prime time. The following came from coach Kelly regarding the conversations taking place between Notre Dame and NBC:

“The model out there has been ABC/ESPN for college football just because of the sheer volume of games they carry. There’s a model out there. All we’ve tried to do is address the model that we think would work well with us and there’s got to be a meeting somewhere halfway. I’m very confident we’re going to be able to do the things we want to do in terms of pushing the tempo without having to go to a commercial break.

That conversation’s taken place. Getting into the specifics, I’m not willing to do that, but I can tell you that that conversations between Jack (Swarbrick) and myself from Notre Dame along with the production people at NBC have taken place and I think we’re going to be able to meet somewhere in the middle.” 


I would like to suggest that, in this case, the myth of “liveness” that Caldwell addresses is even more extreme than he lets on – compromising not only live transmission, but also the very nature of football. Television essentially reshapes broadcasted events like football. Does this mean football is incompatible with broadcast? Certainly not, just look at the outrageous statistics for viewership. However, it does intensify the already unstable claim for liveliness addressed by Caldwell in the broadcast of events like college football.

4 Responses to “The Myth of Liveness in College Football”

  1. Jan Feldman October 28, 2012 at 7:36 pm #

    I don’t know very much about football, but from how you’ve described it, it seems that the TV experience might feel more “live” than actually being there. It is no longer being orchestrated for the people in the stands–it’s orchestrated for the experience of TV viewers.

  2. ambailey9113 October 28, 2012 at 11:17 pm #

    The quote that you included in your post raised interesting questions about the effect of broadcasting on sports, which are one of the few events regularly advertised as “live.” I wonder when these anxieties about the impact of commodification and commercialization on the “purity” of the game first became expressed? While college football has only reached national popularity relatively recently, I wonder if these anxieties were expressed when the NBA or MLB first made the transition to TV.

  3. andrewkgreen October 29, 2012 at 1:42 am #

    I think this is a really interesting discussion about liveness and I wonder what bearing (if any) we think it has on other live events. I’ve been thinking a lot about this in regards to the ongoing presidential election coverage on TV. I remember watching the debates and almost being surprised that there weren’t any commercials, because I had become so accustomed to seeing them as a part of live TV. In a little over a week, the election results will occupy virtually all the space on most networks and some cable channels, but this coverage WILL be broken up by advertising. The debates were available to stream online through YouTube, the New York Times, and other sources, so advertising became less important. Plus, there is an implicit though perhaps unstated obligation that networks like CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and others have to devote time to this kind of advertising-free programing, whereas the networks are still legally bound to air this content as part of their larger goal of informing the public. If you’re interested, here’s a funky little overview of this issue with regards to the first televised debate ever between Nixon and Kennedy:
    But the general election results are different because they occupy a much longer time slot on TV and heavily feature original analysis and opinion, along with interpretations of results and exit polls that come from networks’ news teams. I tend to believe that the composition of advertising for a given program or network is really interesting and important, especially in light of our discussion on Thursday about the significance of HBO being ad-free. If you watch election results on Fox News, you’re bound to be shown a different set of commercials than if you were watching MSNBC or a major network, and I wonder if this in any way affects your overall experience of viewing those results. As Keegan noted, advertising has become central to the experience of watching sports on TV, and sports also tend to have their own style and form of advertising attached to them. It’s clear that no matter what, advertising has begun to affect our viewing experience of live events in noticeable ways, whether in limiting the way Notre Dame can run its offense or affecting the way we receive the results our national elections.

  4. katherinesnyder14 October 29, 2012 at 3:17 am #

    I’ve also been thinking a lot about “liveness” and sports broadcasting. I have to admit, I have almost exclusively watched sports on television for the last few years, and the issue of commercial breaks disrupting gameplay has never really bothered me. I think this is due in large part to the fact that I grew up with commercial breaks, so I can’t quite imagine watching without them.

    Over the summer, though, I was watching water polo in the Olympics, and sometimes they would go to a commercial break, and when they came back, there would be significantly less time on the clock, or the score might be different. When this would happen, I felt more upset than I did about any of the prime time spoilers that became infamous. They were breaking up the flow of the game in a way I wasn’t accustomed to, and it confused and offended me. It was so clear that NBC valued their advertisers more than their viewers or the integrity of the sport they were airing. While most networks generally do a decent job of meshing the viewers’ and advertisers’ different needs, NBC in particular seems to really struggle to find a way to air live sports without being excessively intrusive or disruptive. Both of these extremes, if we can call them that, one of disrupting the actual live nature of the game to break for commercials, and the other being to show advertising at the expense of showing the game, work to take away any illusion of liveness related to the sports that are being shown.

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