Missing the Big Catch on TV

Cup'pa JoeBy pure coincidence I picked a marvel of a week to bring high definition television into my home: it’s “SharkWeek” on the Discovery Channel. 2007 marks the program’s 20th anniversary, and over the course of its two decades of mid-summer mayhem it’s matured into one of summer’s most must-see series, a festival of prime-time, often terrifying drama in the deep blue. A (well-made) scary movie buff, I watch the Discovery suspense series faithfully each July with a similar sense of morbid curiosity: See the tropical isle spear fisherman or Aussie charter boat captain in headshots, and wait with dread for the camera to pan down to the inevitable missing limbs.
(Last summer’s “SharkWeek” celebration was memorably marketed at Discovery’s headquarters in Silver Spring.)
Two qualities have emerged in recent years that have heightened the already high tension associated with the series. One is the dramatic improvement in marine image capturing, rendered in vivid detail, as you might imagine, in high def TV. The other is what appears to be a maverick breed of marine biologists, who gleefully gallop about bull- and tiger shark-infested waters, wholly unprotected, in delusionally suicidal escapades to prove that the man-eaters actually mean us no harm.
Sleep with snakes, swim with sharks . . . there’s a Darwin Award here for these guys. Of course, their new-age cameras now capture the predictable carnage. Last night, mercifully removed from dinner by hours, I witnessed one such knucklehead have his leg sawed off by a bull shark and Australia go into virtual fiscal crisis as he was helicoptered and jet-planed across his homeland and New Zealand for life-saving treatments. Some of these scientist men today missing their calves and forearms remain convinced of a benign nature they ascribe to the planet’s greatest predators. I keep expecting them to mimic Monty Python’s limbless medieval gallant (“It’s just a flesh wound”) (pounds of flesh lost) as they narrate the aftermath of their attacks.
Like ‘Jaws’ in the summer of ’75, “SharkWeek” 30 years later captivates no small segment of our culture. The enduring appeal of both is premised on a perfect storytelling simplicity: nature’s most magnificently engineered hunting machine (who also happens to be ferocious) coming into rather regular contact with humanity’s insatiable appetite to recreate in oceans. This is reality TV!
Years ago, someone high up in Discovery Communications, long after the buzz over ‘Jaws’ had quieted, brought America back into†this basic drama of the sea’s unknown environs and its lethal lurkers. Each July the basic story remains, but we keep coming back to it. Last night as I again watched the dorsal fins close in, transfixed, I had this thought: someone high up in NHL communications needs to boldly dive in to the deep end of television broadcast experimentation and get our great game — the greatest game — revitalized so as to showcase its basic and unrivaled and ageless allure. For too many Americans, the hockey rink is every bit as unknown an environs as the deep sea. And like the sea, the rink is regularly the site of remarkable predation. (Hah.)
Remember during the elation of the lockout’s end and the anticipation of the game’s return how we were promised bold new broadcast initiatives? Where are they? Other than perhaps some trivial technological tinkering, what’s changed? To the common TV viewer, nothing. If marine biologists can find ways to broadcast the migration patterns of Great Whites 2,000 feet deep in the Pacific, can’t a hockey puck and its pursuit be better chronicled than it currently is? Of course it can.
We who from our own experiences with hockey know it to be the best-kept secret in all of sports arrive at that judgment not because we haven’t visited baseball diamonds or soccer pitches but precisely because we have. Last year Ron Weber told me that on a first visit to an NHL rink a newcomer can often experience sensory overload, and be confused by hockey’s idiosyncratic rules (personnel changes on the fly, for instance). But give the guest three visits and Weber’s guidance “and I can get him hooked on hockey for life . . . he’d never want to attend another basketball game,” he added. It’s so true.
I say the vitally needed television revolution can happen, this decade, and I believe that there are people today in possession of the vision to carry it off. But the NHL has no discernible leadership for such a communications overhaul, certainly not from Commissioner Bettman. Concurrently, there’s a chilling climate of disincentive to upgrade hockey’s broadcast experience from the usual broadcast outlet suspects. Inertia rules the day. But some day, perhaps soon, some communications tycoon is going to recognize the potential in the hockey rink’s expanse for a riveting winter’s night narrative in high definition, and he’s going to underwrite the revolution.
Does Discovery have any high-ranking hockey fans?

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10 Responses to Missing the Big Catch on TV

  1. PB says:

    The cool thing about NFL Films, is that they learned early on that the game can be a great story. They used (and still use) fantastic technique in camera work, clever audio placement, and the slow-motion aspect to the film quality greatly enhances the competition.
    The NHL can and should do the same thing. One of the more fascinating stories on that ESPN network pre-lockout was the series The Season when they featured the Colorado Avalanche. Intense with incredible access, the NHL could learn how to market and work that behind the scenes aspect into their daily production.
    Casual fans love the mic’d up players (even though the on-ice stuff they feature doesn’t give that clear of insight), but they can certainly produce a “This Week in the NHL” or pick a team to focus their attention, or just follow the team in first place in each conference.
    Like you, I’m still waiting for that technological break through in hockey production.

  2. Meza says:

    Discovery might do well in documentaries, but sports? After 3 years of sponsoring Lance Armstrongs cycling team they are ending their sponsorship. This is a team that won 9 of the last 8 TDF’s (Tour de France). That’s like Stienbrenner selling the Yankees after winning a championship.

  3. They need to start with a floating camera just like they have in the NFL. An endzone view would allow people watching on television an opportunity to see the entire ice, and in turn would make the game a lot easier to follow. The traditional sideline view needs to go.

  4. CaptnClark says:

    My friend actually works there and last year he was one of the folks in charge of putting that thing together.

  5. Strikeman says:

    I think it would be cool to have an overhead north-south camera view. But It would be impossible due to the scoreboard location.

  6. odessasteps says:

    I keep hearing the theory that the ‘north/south’ camera will bring in the video gamers who are used to seeing hockey presented in that format.
    i still cling to the hope that HD will bring people to the hockey table.

  7. SDG says:

    I think the reason Shark Week does so well in the ratings is that it appeals to our ‘barbaric’ nature. Perhaps if hockey could promise viewers the blood and carnage that Shark Week delivers, more people would tune in. Perhaps something like Youngblood meets Gladiator?

  8. SovSport says:

    The Discovery channel should buy the rights to televise all of the Sharks’ games next season. The market it as “the Sharks’ attack year”. Maybe more people will tune in. The HD quality is amazing. Watching hockey in 1080i is awesome. But when the 1080p rolls around it is going to be even better, because the progressive scan (the “p” in 1080p) is better for sports boradcasting.

  9. SDG, I suppose ‘Barbaric’ is a relative word. To me its use is appropriate when applied to those ticketed for soccer matches.

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