The Silent Game

Posted on December 24, 2010 by

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A little more than 30 years ago to the day, the american TV network NBC decided to try a gimmick in a meaningless end-of-the-regular-season football game between the New York Jets and the Miami Dolphins. These two teams weren’t going anywhere; playoff spots were long gone. It turned out to be a game that was talked about a lot and brought a lot more viewers to the game than otherwise would have been and, was termed “the silent game”.

Don Ohlmeyer, the executive producer of the football games on NBC, and later on would produce a few Olympics as well for the same network, had a brainstorm to inject life in to a dead game and boost the ratings: What if there were no commentators?

And so it happened, with the pre-game show announcer putting down his microphone, walking away and the game kicked off. Fans were aided by on-screen graphics and a public address announcer providing a bit more detail than he normally would, to keep the fans at home abreast of the in-game developments, time left, the down, yards to go etc. But overall, the fans got to see the game as one would follow it if they were actually in the stadium but what you saw was dictated by the cameramen. Without the overwhelming buildups and inane statements of the commentators, the fans at home got an opportunity to follow the game and hear the on-field calls, grunts and helmet crashing in to protective pads, crowd noise and nothing else.

This got me thinking: would something of this sort work in Cricket? It’s pretty cricket-universally agreed that the standard of TV commentary is downright putrid and it also is reflected in the popularity of alternative cricket commentary Test Match Sofa. The “Terrible Twosome” of Ravi Shastri and Danny Morrison can drive any sane cricket fan to the mental asylum before you could say “Sivaramakrishnan” with their “tracer bullets” and “yea, have some of that!”

Shut The Fuck Up

An additional wrinkle that cricket provides is the three formats of the game. Perhaps, a T20 game would be a great place to try such a gimmick. The TV audience could easily follow the game with just a scoreboard in the corner and be entertained by the game itself and the crowd reactions. But then, how would the sponsors have their plugs – “DLF Maximum” and “Karbonn Kamaal Katch” – heard?

Maybe, test cricket would be ideal for it? A lot of people would concur that the cricket commentary has been dumbed down severely and is full of clichés. Test cricket, with its ebb and flow, has always attracted a nuanced audience that has the patience and the knowledge to enjoy the game. The lack of intrusive commentary may then be perfect for these fans. All they get to hear are the bowlers rumbling to the crease and sweet sound of leather meeting willow and the fans ooh-ing and aah-ing. Now, wouldn’t that just be dandy?

Dick Enberg who commentated in those days for NBC and to this day, provides commentary on Football on Sundays and Tennis during the Grand Slam Championships for many networks describes his reaction to NBC trying the commentator less game as, “nervousness”.

“We’re paid to talk, so all of us want to fill the air with lots of exciting words. We all gathered together, hoping that Ohlmeyer was dead wrong. I mean, he was flirting with the rest of our lives. What if this crazy idea really worked?”

Sadly, NBC never tried this experiment ever again, even with their switchboard count during the game standing at: Pro: 831, Con: 518.

Enberg points out an important fact as an outcome of this experiment. As the game progressed, he realized that there was something missing and it was “us [commentators]” and adds, “While we are not the most important ingredients in the pie, we certainly are a slice of that pie that gives the whole experience full flavor.”

With the threat to their livelihood averted, did commentators like Enberg, learn anything from the whole exercise?

In the interview to ESPN coverage marking the 30th anniversary of the silent game, Enberg admitted, “It improved me. Consciously, to this day, there are moments in every sport that I do when I kind of throw up my hands as if to say to myself and to my partner, ‘Let’s not talk. This moment is special, we don’t need to talk. Let’s let it play’.”

Arun Lals and Ian Bothams of the world, are you listening?

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Article by Subash Jayaraman