Monday, December 20, 2010

December 20, 1980: The sound of silence

MIAMI - It sounds like a dream to people who hate bad football announcers, who think they just get in the way of enjoying a game. NBC tried an experiment for its final game of the year in 1980 by broadcasting the game with no announcers. There was no play-by-play, no color commentary, no sideline reporters. The only sounds were the sounds of the game.

While it was passed off as an experiment, one designed to challenge the long-standing belief of what made a successful broadcast, in reality, it was a ratings grab. Seeing a drab matchup between the 3-12 Jets and the 8-7 Dolphins, with both teams already eliminated from the playoffs, ABC executives came up with the announcer-less idea simply as a gimmick to draw a larger audience than would otherwise have been expected to tune in. In pushing the novelty of the game, they were hoping to overcome the perception that it was simply a boring, meaningless game.

The results were ... uh... underwhelming. While it seemed like announcers would get in the way, viewers and producers quickly realized how awkward the game was without the context provided by announcers. The game producers did what they could - adding graphics whenever possible, showing pre-recorded interviews, adding microphones throughout the stadium. But things still seemed missing. The interviews seemed forced and out of place when thrown up unexpectedly during the game. The NFL wouldn't relax some of its player-access restrictions, so the players weren't miked, making the quarterback signals inaudible throughout the game. Viewers complained about a low buzzing sound during parts of the game. What made it worse was that NBC had the technology to use the now-standard score "bug," showing the score and time remaining constantly, but nobody had thought to do it for this game.

While the overwhelming reaction to the game, in retrospect, seems to be negative, there is one surprising aspect: the switchboard in NBC recorded the viewer feed back as 831 pro, 518 con. So some people liked it. But people didn't like it enough to make it common. Every game since has had announcers.

But the announcerless game wasn't completely for naught. Because of the number of graphics necessary for producers to tell the story of that game, graphics started becoming more and more common in football broadcasts. NBC announcer Dick Enberg said that while he was relieved the experiment didn't work, he did learn that it was appropriate to let silence carry the broadcast in certain situations. So there was some good that came from it.

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