Everyone has now played at least two matches, so I thought that it was about time that we reviewed the American coverage of the World Cup. Here's Mark's take:
In the months leading up to the World Cup, my anxiety was over whether it would be possible to get coverage at all on the TV here. It was a great relief to discover that every single match would be broadcast. In fact the energy and enthusiasm that goes into the American broadcasts makes one think that there must be reasonable numbers of Americans watching this. If so, they don't live near us. We did meet an American gentleman in a second hand bookshop on Friday who recognised our English accents and declared himself an Arsenal fan, and he was surprisingly knowledgeable about football and had some interesting and useful advice for Sven-Göran Eriksson on where to play Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. But he was the exception.
What, then, of the American TV coverage? One of the great pluses is that every game is available in High Definition if you are lucky enough to have the equipment (as we are -- it comes free to Time Warner Cable customers in our area -- you just have to ask for it!). And my goodness, you can tell the difference. It has to be said that the general digital cable coverage is rather inferior to the digital cable coverage we were used to in the UK, e.g. broadcasting in widescreen is the exception rather than the norm. But where High Definition is available, it trumps the standard definition digital coverage by some way. The matches are shown across three channels, but all part of the same company, ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC Sports, but they broadcast across two channels each, one for standard definition and one for high definition.
One downside with the picture is that they have a huge strip at the top, taking up a large part of the picture, essentially just to give the score, the sponsor, the time, a great deal less efficient space-wise than the nice BBC and ITV equivalents. And for some of the match on High Definition, and all of it on Standard Definition, they have a monster ugly strip at the bottom which speaks in code to those in the know about American sporting events. And like ITV coverage in the UK, there is an unbelievable amount of advertising, for about nine-tenths of half-time. So you don't get a lot in the way of the pundits in the studio, which is a shame because one wants to hear some analysis and see some replays. But then again they haven't got Alan Hansen, or Mark Lawrenson, or Gary Linekar, so one can take or leave the half-time commentary anyway.
MiniMotty is all very well, but no substitute for the real thing. Having said all that, the American commentary is most enjoyable. The team they seem to use the most is Dave O'Brien and Marcello Bilboa. I think the latter is a former America "soccer" player himself, while O'Brien has a voice like Principal Skinner on The Simpsons. For some of the other matches, they have a British guy whose name I've forgotten, who sits alongside a guy with the most pronounced Irish accent I've ever heard (Tommy something). The commentators all work hard to explain the game to newcomers, something I find highly commendable. They endlessly explain how red and yellow cards work, how many substitutes are allowed and so on. They are also highly opinionated, especially over the red cards in USA's match with Italy.
Some of the terminology strikes an Englishman as a little odd. They talk about a match being a "tie" rather than a "draw"; they never use "nil" for 0; nor do they use "all" for draws, so it is "one to one" rather than "one all"; and "one-nil" is "one to nothing". But on the whole, it is easy enough to translate. My only criticism of some of the American commentary is that it is occasionally more akin to radio commentary than TV commentary and will lapse into describing what we can see in front of us. At times too, when commenting on England games, you can't help thinking that the commentators are seduced by players' reputations and make more of them than their performances deserve. In particular, England are often referred to as "David Beckham's men" and we must have heard "bend it like Beckham" a dozen times in England's first match.
We have supplemented the American coverage with plenty of other British materials to get a flavour of what is going on the UK. The Baddiel and Skinner podcast is pure joy. Straight after each England match we listen to the FiveLive football phone-in 606. I like to catch the World Cup Daily and of course I keep an eye on the BBC Sports Player (available in broadband from that link). I do crave a bit more British coverage, but for now have resisted the temptation to connect to a proxy server and pick up the BBC live coverage. And it is fun to enjoy the odd little slip by the American commentators, "Michael Beckham" in the first England game and the England side called "Germany" at another.
June 22, 2006I finally succumbed to temptation yesterday and downloaded a Match of the Day highlights programme because I was missing the BBC coverage, and it was a real joy. The one I watched was the day of the England v. Sweden match. Adrian Chiles was presenting, a Brummie I know well from 606, and he did a great job. And it was good to see Hansen doing the business, and to hear Motty and Lawro on the commentary. But watching the broadcast reminded me of things that are standard in the British coverage but which are remarkably absent in the American ESPN / ABC Sports coverage. As I commented above, there is no time for punditry -- hardly even time to replay goals, let alone analyse the game and comment on controversial moments. It's a shame because the team they have in the studio seems fine.
Most striking, though, was seeing interviews again. The American coverage simply lacks any interviews with key players and managers after the match and I had hardly noticed it until now. The exception was after the USA Ghana match today when the American coach (Arena) was interviewed. But normally speaking it creates some real detachment from the tournament. In fact it's clear that the USA have a real skeleton crew in Germany. You occasionally get to see Dave O'Brien and Marcello Balboa live at the ground, but that's it. The pundits appear to be in a studio in the US and not in Germany. There is nothing of the atmosphere from the streets of Germany that characterises all the British coverage. I suppose I've not missed that particularly because I've been watching Match of the Day's World Cup Daily and have immersed myself in FiveLive's coverage.
A couple of other pleasures on the podcasting front are worth mentioning. First, when I wrote the above, I had not realized that the Daily Mayo Podcast had gone over to a World Cup special. The Daily Mayo is part of my regular podcasting diet, but I'd tuned out at the beginning of the World Cup and it turns out that that was a mistake. Each day, Simon Mayo introduces highlights from FiveLive's broadcasts on the World Cup each day. Essential listening, and great fun (e.g. the man who had taken a sickie so that he could go and watch England and then got filmed, drunk, by SkySports, and seen by his boss!). And I hadn't realized that 606, also available as a podcast, is broadcasting most days, and is worth listening to most days -- and not just on England match days. A particular feature of note was Monday's programme, which focused the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, as one of the co-presenters of the phone-in. He was well worth listening to, too. And the Daily Mayo presented some highlights from the programme the next day.
Apparently the Baddiel and Skinner podcast previously mentioned is doing brilliantly -- and that's not surprising -- it's great fun. I loved Fantasy Football with Baddiel and Skinner in 1996, 1998 and 2004 so it's great to have them back on form again (and also interviewed on Tuesday's Daily Mayo). As well as all this, I've been dipping into the Guardian's daily World Cup podcast, which appears late evening (American time) every day, and it's worth a listen.
And one last thing: don't miss Gervais and Merchant tackle 'the Crouch'.
Here's my wallchart.