Thursday 5 December 2019

Failure of innovation sees GAA coverage miss the point

The Couch

Declan Hannon, left, scored a splendid point during last Sunday's Munster hurling final which was unfortunately missed by RTÉ cameras. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Declan Hannon, left, scored a splendid point during last Sunday's Munster hurling final which was unfortunately missed by RTÉ cameras. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Tommy Conlon

Twelve minutes into last Sunday’s Munster hurling final, Declan Hannon launched a monster point from way out on the left sideline.

It was a splendid effort from the Limerick man, which is why it’s unfortunate that RTÉ didn’t show it. Oh, they were there alright, the match was broadcast live with a panoply of cameras to capture the action. But still we didn’t see it.

The main camera was somewhere high up in the stand on the opposite side of the pitch. This is the ‘master’ camera, positioned roughly in line with the halfway line. It is the camera that supplies most of the generic coverage in field games from soccer to rugby, Gaelic football and hurling. It is the safe option because it captures the action from a wide angle and therefore is unlikely to miss the general movement of players and ball.

The downside is that it lacks detail. It gives us the action in macro not in micro. The main camera is usually so far back from the field that the players are reduced in size to miniature versions of themselves. It is often difficult for the viewer to identify who they are. With Hannon on the far side of the field, he was just a tiny blur in green.

The director of a live TV match broadcast will frequently cut to an alternative angle from one of his other cameras to bring us closer to the players, and to the nuts and bolts of the action. When the ball is about to be moved out of this specific zone, he will revert to his main camera angle. Once a fresh contest for possession begins elsewhere he will again cut to another camera angle to capture this latest action in closer detail.

A break in play will give him the chance to select a replay of an incident, or a score, from an alternative angle to the main camera. It’s the pattern of TV coverage in sport with which we’ve all become familiar.

But this slavish reliance on the main camera is beginning to look increasingly outmoded. The visual culture in general has never been more dynamic, be it in music, cinema, television or video games. It is all kinetic editing and high-definition images and saturation coverage from multiple angles.

In sport, the American networks have inevitably been the first to catch up. The use of cable cameras, for example, has become routine there over the last 10 years. These are lightweight cameras mounted on cables that are attached to fixed points at corners of the stadium. The cables criss-cross the field overhead. The cameras are computer-controlled by technicians in a studio.

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And they have brought the viewer into the heart of the action. The closest we could hitherto get was from a camera on the sideline. But no matter what camera the director chose, it was usually a static angle on the edge of the play at best, or high up in the stands at worst.

The cable cameras swoop and zoom from overhead, taking the viewer from the edge to the centre of the play. For example, we nowadays receive fantastic images of the line of scrimmage in American football. When the ball is snapped, we are there with the quarterback, virtually on his shoulder as he scans the field for options. His point of view is our point of view. We can see his wide receivers sprinting downfield, we can see the giant linebackers coming to attack him as he cocks the ball in his throwing arm.

This kind of immersive coverage adds a whole new dimension to watching televised sport.

World Cup 2014 had a proliferation of cable cameras; plus cameras mounted on cranes behind the goals. The trend everywhere is towards fluid not static images, the cameras moving through the air with the action.

The main camera is just about tolerable in games like rugby, soccer and Gaelic football, if only because the ball is big enough to be visible at all times. In hurling, it has become nigh redundant.

For over 30 years we have watched hurlers striking colossal points from down town, only to see the ball disappear somewhere en route to the uprights.

The camera operator dutifully follows the trajectory but the viewer at home is left looking at air. The first we know it’s a point is when the crowd roars and the umpire goes for the white flag. Basically the camera operator and the viewer at home and the spectator in the crowd is trying to locate an airborne white ball — against the backdrop of a white sky.

Hannon’s point, and ten thousand other points over the years, have got lost in the ether like this.

RTÉ’s fallback is usually to show a replay from behind the goals where the point was scored. But all too often, as again last Sunday, what we get is another eyeful of cloud and sky with no sign of the ball.

It is a complete failure of innovation, not just on RTÉ’s part but the GAA’s too. Is there any danger at all that Croke Park might put some research and development into this? There are all sorts of commercial sprays and paints and dyes that just might work to give us a more visible ball.

One way or another, their television coverage of hurling in particular has to move into the 21st century sooner rather than later.

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