I think I’ve just seen another miracle on ice …
The National Hockey League is back on one of the major American broadcast networks. Some would call that a miracle in itself, but I’m taking higher ground. Specifically, I’m referring to the quality of the broadcast. It’s one of the best-produced sports programs I’ve seen.
Kudos to NBC Sports!
America is a difficult market for hockey. It may be the world’s fastest team sport and it may encompass many attributes of skill and strength that should appeal to the American fan, but many regions in the USA have little or no local influence or infrastructure of any significance for the sport. That means any national broadcast package must overcome a series of complex perception issues, not the least of which is in attracting casual sports fans to even try viewing it. Some wags contend that the only real NHL fans are only found in their arenas — explaining why the capacity percentages for NHL games are higher than in any other sport — but, as a fan myself, I consider that a lazy observation.
I will agree that, more often than not, one has to actually attend a hockey game to become a fan. Therein lies the problem with most of its television broadcast packages in the USA. To date, they have not accurately captured the essence of the game, which would offer new viewers a reason to become fans. For example, only baseball can rival hockey in aural effervescence — the sounds of sticks clapping the ice or shooting the puck, of hardened steel blades cutting ice, of the puck pinging off goal posts, of humanity crashing into each other and/or the sideboards — and usually, that means you have to be there to truly absorb the experience. Once you do, the odds are strong that you’ll be hooked on hockey, too.
This is a factor that American television networks never seemed to fathom. At least, until now. NBC’s geeks have found a way to mike the rink so the sizzle of hockey’s sounds are finely captured and the production crew has made sure that this audio element be made prominent throughout the game. The effect was absolutely visceral.
NBC’s broadcasters have a dual challenge in describing the action so as not to insult the intelligence of avid hockey fans while doing so in a manner that won’t confuse viewers new to the game. They accomplished it with aplomb, literally talking to two audiences simultaneously and seamlessly, using what’s becoming a lost art in American sportscasting: selecting their terms judiciously and sparingly.
Meanwhile, the studio broadcasters worked from a bright-but-subtle, well-designed set and deployed the same discipline. The anchor, former Philadelphia Flyer goalie Bill Clement, is often reduced to a shill when he hosts the NHL’s cable package on OLN. However, on NBC, he was excellently understated, allowing his analysts to be themselves rather than talking heads and giving each discussion point only the time it needed, letting each message sell itself to each viewer. It will be interesting to see if NBC keeps that set outside, at the skating rink adjacent to their New York headquarters. It’s the ultimate visual aid, of course, and Clement’s obvious effortless abilities on it not only allows him to more smoothly elaborate an aspect of the game, by inference the new viewer can identify with skating as an activity available to everyone.
I never thought I’d see the day when an American video production of a hockey game was actually better than its Canadian counterpart, but NBC did it. Comparatively speaking, hockey broadcasts in Europe are basic and banal, but those countries are more attuned to the game and actually seem to prefer that sort of presentation. The Canadians are rightfully viewed as being state-of-the-art when it comes to televising hockey. Any true fan will confirm that Hockey Night in Canada is a Saturday night rite of respect to a game that, on many occasions, can count 25% of that nation’s population among its audience.
And yet, the NBC production was crisper, often with more unique but very useful camera angles that provided perfect sightlines to the puck and any action around it. They integrated graphics into the action that far exceeded anything I’ve seen anywhere else. Some simple additions, such as drop-downs logging the shift time of a particular player, aid an avid fan’s awareness of unfolding team strategy while also enlightening the new viewer as to how quickly player changes occur and why. Better yet, the graphics were never obtrusive, allowing viewers to check them at their discretion (as opposed to ‘demanding’ their attention by ’scrolling’ data while action is occurring).
It’s hard to believe this came from the network that, 30 years ago, gave us the late, unlamented Peter Puck. That was the cartoon character NBC invented during their first, unsuccessful attempt to broadcast hockey. The last feature hockey needed then, or now, is a reversion to kids’ programing in the midst of a sportscast that wants to be taken more seriously by the adult American market.
It’s also good to see technology deployed in more refined terms. That wasn’t always the case. When they had the national broadcast package, Fox Network’s attempt to follow the puck with a ridiculous ‘virtual tracking path’ — derisively termed the ’sperm’ puck, as that’s the image it resembled — overshadowed the action, and combined with its morphing robot graphics presenting scores, hockey was trivialized to serving as a backdrop for ersatz video games. New viewers only remembered effects, and avid fans got tired of trying to look past all that to see if a real game happened to be in progress.
Many experts have thought that the advent of HDTV would be a boon to hockey, as the wider screen would enable more action to be portrayed. Perhaps NBC is preparing for that imminent change in broadcast standards. If so, they deserve high praise for their foresight and higher praise for their preparations. They’re making the experts look good with their predictions.
And speaking of preparations, the NHL is surely an early benefactor of NBC being the American outlet for the Winter Olympics, of which the hockey tournament is a major feature. The network is no doubt honing its cast and crew for that coverage, too. Given what they’ve already shown, hockey fans in America will be scanning their listings for NBC as opposed to any other available alternative, and sports fans in general will have no better opportunity to finally see why hockey is worth their attention.
During the 1980 Winter Games, in Lake Placid, when the USA’s team of collegians shocked the Russian juggernaut of professionals in the Upset of All Time, broadcaster Al Michaels uttered his famous, “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”
It’s taken 25 years, but we can believe again. Only this time, it’s the coverage. NBC has gone for hockey gold and we’re the winners.