Thursday 17 January 2019

Comment: Hurling is in a blind spot, soon viewers will go missing just like the ball


Joe Canning . Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Canning . Photo: Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

In trying to explain the technical components of his fabled ground stroke, Joe Canning talks about "genuflecting" into the shot. When he converts those sideline cuts into points, everyone watching genuflects before him.

Last Saturday night in Wexford Park the Galway maestro landed two of them, one in each half. The crowd oohed and applauded as the ball climbed, curled and sailed between the posts. Or at least we assume that is what it did because, as usual, the television cameras lost the flight of the ball. Sky Sports was broadcasting the game live.

Sky's debut season in Gaelic games was 2014. 'See GAA differently' was the tag-line on its first promotional video. Unfortunately we're still seeing it the same. The game of hurling is still being poorly served. The ball goes missing routinely. There is still the same slavish reliance by television directors on the wide angle, the camera shot that shows the play from a distance, meaning the viewer is frequently left wondering what exactly is happening in a given moment.

It is the television director's job during a live broadcast to choose the camera angle that the audience will see at home. If there are six cameras covering a match, the director in the control room will be choosing the action from one of six monitors. Some of the camera angles will provide close-up footage of the play. You don't get to see the wider picture but if it's hurling you do at least get to see the ball and you will have a fair chance of identifying the players involved. This footage will usually only last a few seconds before the director reverts to the wide shot from Camera 1.

This is the camera normally placed in an elevated position, somewhere at the rear of the stand and overlooking the half-way line. It will have command of the field, left and right. It is the director's comfort blanket: if in doubt, revert to Camera 1. It means the action won't be missed; it also means the action won't be particularly visible. The sliotar from this distance looks like a white speck. The players are reduced to the size of Subbuteo miniatures.

A rough guesstimate suggests that 80 per cent of a hurling match is shown from this angle. It makes for very frustrating viewing. It means we know what's happening but all too often we can't see what's happening. The experience has become tediously familiar over the years: a decent close-up, say, of a player breaking from a ruck and charging for goal. And just as things are about to get exciting, the director loses his nerve and cuts back to Camera 1. Now you see it, now you don't. We are intimate with the action, suddenly it's long-distance.

The players around the man in possession, defending and attacking, merge into one amorphous cluster. The detail is lost. We find out the player has scored a point because the commentator tells us, or because the crowd starts cheering, but we cannot see it for ourselves until a replay comes along.

It is way past time that Sky and RTÉ tore up the old formula, perhaps for all field games, but certainly for hurling. They never stop telling us how unique it is as a sport. Then why not cover it uniquely? Instead the same template that is used in rugby or soccer or Gaelic football is also applied here.

Newsflash: the ball is smaller in hurling. It is harder to see from the long-distance wide angle. The action is more dense; every piece of play is bursting with micro-incidents, flurries of flicks and reflex actions executed at high speed. It needs close-up camera coverage to capture in detail what is happening. Television directors have to wean themselves off their dependence on the main camera and start showing us what is actually happening by opting for the more intimate footage at their disposal.

This reliance on the wide angle is looking more and more primitive with each passing year. In American football, for example, we are being served sensational footage that virtually puts the viewer on the field with the quarterback as he takes the snap. We are seeing it from Tom Brady's point of view, courtesy of 'SkyCam', the overhead cameras that zip along the cable wires suspended across the field.

American sport has been using cable cameras for two decades and more. All the major sports have been undergoing a revolution in their television coverage. Yet in hurling, a lot of the time they still can't even show us the ball. And they still think that the wide-angle long-distance coverage from the main camera is sufficient. It is not, it is patently a second-rate service.

On the editorial side, Sky's coverage has opened up the field to a wider range of opinions and voices, in the studio and the commentary box. In terms of technological innovation it has been disappointing, given its ground-breaking track record in the Premier League and other sports.

The coverage of Canning's sideline cuts last weekend was strictly old-school. For his first one they showed a replay from the camera mounted on scaffolding behind the goal. And even this angle couldn't capture the flight of the ball. It was yet another superlative point added to the vast archive of invisible points in hurling.

In golf, television frequently uses 'tracer' technology to track the flight of the ball. It is a brilliant visual aid for the home viewer. Any chance they might be able to apply this, in any form, to hurling? Has the question ever been asked? Does Croke Park even want to know?

The grand old game badly needs some new ideas from the people who are supposed to be selling it to a 21st-century audience.

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