Eli Zaret: Football on TV, a technological extravaganza

‘We all love the human element in sports, but technology can’t be ignored or denied’

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 30: A view of an NBC television camera on the sideline during a National Football League game between the Houston Oilers and Cleveland Browns at Cleveland Municipal Stadium on November 30, 1986 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Browns defeated the Oilers 13-10. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images) (George Gojkovich, 1986 George Gojkovich)

As I sat watching hour after hour of playoff football last weekend, and feeling somewhat impressed by my own endurance, I also found myself marveling anew about how much the game has changed.

No, not the game itself which is always changing and evolving, but how dramatically the presentation has changed. To me, football on TV is a moment by moment technological wonder.

Unfortunately, I’m old enough to remember football before 1964, when there weren’t even simple replays. I remember reading that the Lions-Colts Thanksgiving day game in 1965 was the NFL’s first color telecast. Of course, few homes had color TV and I watched the only tie game in the Lions Thanksgiving Day history, (24-24) in black and white.

I remember NFL football before the telestrator which was introduced in 1982 during the Bengals and 49ers Super Bowl game at the Silverdome. John Madden sketched a pass route right on the screen as we all watched our press box monitors in bug-eyed awe.

In 1986, the league finally had no choice but to employ the “Instant replay challenge.” Fans at home had been through years of replays that the officials weren’t privy to, and it continually created ludicrous situations. How could everyone watching on television know what had really happened, while the refs, the ones who really needed to know, remained clueless?

I was a young reporter covering the Michigan-USC Rose Bowl in 1979 when the late Charles White fumbled near the goal line; Michigan recovered the ball, but the refs still called it a touchdown. Those 7 points made the difference in the Wolverines 17-10 loss, yet it’d be 6 more years before instant replay was allowed to correct refereeing mistakes. In the locker room afterward, that Michigan team coached by Bo Schembechler and led by Rick Leach sat stunned and devastated. Their season had been ruined by a bad call that everyone but the referees had seen in replay.

Until the 1994 season, a viewer would know the score of a game only when the announcer decided to say it. The “Score Bug” was introduced that season. No longer would I join a game in progress and after a few minutes yell, “C’mon, tell me the damn score!”

At the 1996 NHL All Star game, Fox introduced the glow puck. Although reviewed unfavorably as a lame attempt to help viewers follow the action, it led to one of the most important innovations: the yellow first down line introduced by ESPN in 1997.

We were all baffled when we first saw it superimposed on the screen.. How was this possible? How could it move along with the action? Was it a laser beam? An aeronautical engineer, mathematician, broadcast and software engineers working for a start-up company called Sportvision had changed televised football forever.

In 2000, HD was introduced and the screen was widened to a 16x9 ratio from the standard 3x4 which made watching infinitely more realistic and enjoyable.

The 23 years since HD-TV have further refined and enhanced the TV experience. Small wireless cameras flying along barely visible wires above the field bring us right into huddles. Super close up cameras zoom inside player’s helmets to catch the gamut of facial expressions. Tiny directional microphones let us hear the quarterback call plays and bark signals. Then we hear the clash of bodies as they block, tackle and fight for yardage.

It used to be that there had to be a blimp at a game to get stunning aerial views. Now drones take us everywhere, from scenic shots of the home city, into the stands or anywhere a colorful or entertaining shot might be.

Just as replay technology added critical precision to football refereeing and fan interest, the electronic strike zone is having the same effect on baseball. After reviewing millions of pitches over several seasons, it was revealed in 2018 that 1 in 5 ball-strike calls in Major League Baseball were incorrect. It’s become an ongoing embarrassment to the umpiring profession, when even the best of them are right only about 80% of the time.

In 2023, Triple-A baseball, the highest minor league level, will use electronic umpires all season to gauge its future use in the Major leagues.

We all love the human element in sports, but technology can’t be ignored or denied. Without the amazing advances most people take for granted, there’s no way I could hang in for 15 hours of football in a single weekend. Except for the constant intrusion of commercials, a topic for a different time, I watch these playoffs in a state of controlled amazement at the compelling spectacle it has become.