When TV blends with technology: What the future might hold

Published: Sept. 13, 2002 in the Orlando Sentinel
When you sit down to watch TV, do you ever wish you could make what's on screen come to life?
Well, within a matter of years, that'll be virtually possible. Better buckle up, it's time to go racing.
You're watching the Daytona 500 when the network breaks for a commercial. But instead of changing the channel, you push a special button on your remote and suddenly the race returns.
Only now you're on the track driving a Winston Cup car in real time. See, there's a reason we told you to buckle up.
At Daytona, Tony Stewart looks for a way around Jeff Gordon for the lead. Now you're right beside Stewart, controlling a virtual car as you would in a video game -- except your screen shows exactly what a real driver would see at that moment.
If, for instance, you're behind Gordon and he takes a turn using the line you wanted, you have to find another or slow down. Everything affecting the real cars at Daytona, down to that day's actual track temperature, affects your car the same way.
After you've run a couple of laps, and fallen back to ninth, the commercial break ends. You hear the network announcers again but you're still racing. The worlds of TV broadcasts and video games have merged.
At the end of the race, after interviews with the real drivers, the best "drivers" from home see their scores and times on screen and earn prizes.
Sound crazy? Think again.
Customers of British Sky Broadcasting already can choose from several different camera angles, retrieve instant stats, and check out replays from different angles any time they want during sports events.
After installing the personal satellite dish and set-top box (about $220), the service that comes along with a package of family and sports channels similar to what most Americans receive runs about $46 a month.
And that's just the parade lap in the grand technology race.
"It's kind of scary where we are and where we can go," said Jeremy Strauser, producer for Tiburon, which makes Electronic Arts' "Madden NFL" series of video games. "Television and the technology we're seeing in video games are evolving to a point where they'll be able to do those kinds of things.
"Ten years ago, if you would have said that one day you'd be able to afford a personal satellite dish and be able to watch any NFL game you wanted, no one would have believed you. But look what we have now."
Technology has reached a point where companies can produce graphical goodies such as Sportvision, whose credits include the "1st & 10" line, the colored virtual first-down stripe shown during football games, and its Race f/x technology, which updates a car's telemetry five times per second during NASCAR races.
Networks themselves have generated popular features as well, such as the graphic showing the constant time and score of a game, and player introduction screens that seem to have come straight from video games.
As video games strive to look like real life and game broadcasts take cues from video games, the line between reality and virtual reality blurs even more.
"We have zero worry about that," Fox Sports Net President Tracy Dolgin said. "Video games are good. [The video-game look] gets kids involved in sports. We have always taken a lesson from those games."
But not everyone agrees. While video games and TV broadcasts continue to head toward the same point, some in the business think more caution should be used before tossing graphics on screen just to make it more flashy.
"The No. 1 thing is we're not into gimmicks," said John Wildhack, ESPN's senior vice president of programming. "We want technology to ultimately supplement our broadcasts, not overwhelm them. We thought the 1st & 10 line elevated our football broadcasts to a completely different level. We're careful not to do things just for the sake of doing them."
Still, networks and viewers have fallen hard for new technology, to the point of sparking outrage when it's absent. Last season Fox pulled the first-down line from some NFL telecasts, creating a public outcry that forced Fox to restore it. It was quite a validation for something that has only been around since September 1998.
By 2012 -- or even sooner -- sports broadcasts and video games may well become indistinguishable.
"If you look at what has happened with the NFL in the last 10 years, the game broadcast itself really hasn't changed much," Fox Sports President Ed Goren said. "It's the meringue around it that has changed, and I think it'll continue in that direction."
These love affairs aren't cheap. The 1st & 10 line looks simple, costing about $20,000 and requiring two operators. The Race f/x technology costs nearly $100,000 per race -- though this year that fee is paid by pay-per-view services, not networks -- and needs six to 10 people to properly run it.
Networks have been willing to pay the price, but their parent companies have begun taking a much harder look at the bottom line, which in recent years has taken a brutal 1-2 punch of rapidly rising rights fees and a slow but steady decline in overall ratings.
"I think all that is great, but most of it is dictated by how much a network can afford," CBS Sports President Sean McManus said. "All of us have these great ideas we can add to a broadcast, but it will all be decided by how much a network is willing to pay for the technology."
Aside from the high price, falling in love with technology over substance can be like adding sugar to a car's gas tank. Too many graphics can clutter the screen, driving away traditionalists, and the misuse of technology can simply confuse casual viewers, who stop to check out the glitter but quickly realize there's nothing more and move on.
Network executives say they regularly talk to various companies hoping to put their innovations on the map. They also say taking care in picking which technology to use will always remain a key component to successful sports broadcasts.
"If technology is not necessarily driving the broadcast, then I don't like the use of that," NBC Sports President Ken Schanzer said. "You have to be critical, and make sure it enhances the product and it holds viewers."
But even ideas that make it on air sometimes blow an engine. Remember the glowing puck on Fox's NHL broadcasts, or when NBC put a cameraman on the field during XFL broadcasts?
"We did do a number of things right from the start with the XFL," Schanzer said. "But we didn't execute the football. We were doing some things we didn't know about."
Networks aren't the only track in town for viewers to get their sports fix.
Big-ticket sports events, such as heavyweight title fights, have gone to pay-per-view. NASCAR race broadcasts offer enhanced content, such as constant audio feeds and telemetry information for a specific team, on cable pay channels as well.
Broadcast networks have begun to balk at the high rights fees charged by sports leagues to show their games, and cable networks look more and more attractive to the leagues. This season, for instance, will mark the first time the NBA All-Star Game and both conference finals will air only on cable.
Still, the backlash from average viewers has started to grow as cable and satellite bills edge higher, in part to help defray the cost of rights fees. And that doesn't figure to stop anytime soon.
"It's hard for me to conceive [pay-per-view] happening on a wide scale," Schanzer said. "In my heart of hearts, I believe if you start restricting access, [viewers] learn to live without it. They hurt you at the box office, they hurt you with video games, and they hurt you with so many other things. It just starts a death spiral. Much more fundamentally, there are so many different things for a person to do, and once they get used to not watching, why should they start again?"
Though one might expect a broadcast executive to say as much, Schanzer says pay-per-view will stay part of the overall scene, just not a big part.
Last year, Fox moved a few baseball division series games and a National League Championship Series game to what was then Fox Family and Fox Sports Net. That made numerous viewers angry because not all cable systems carry those channels.
It was even worse in Orlando because Time Warner, the area's dominant cable system, doesn't carry Fox Sports Net and had Fox Family on its digital tier, which left about 450,000 customers on its basic package in the dark.
So take that backlash and multiply it by 100 and you start to sense the reaction if, say, the entire World Series were available only on pay-per-view.
"It's hard to imagine [pay-per-view] will be the dominant mode of television, or even a big part," Dolgin said. "Maybe I'm wrong, but I think fans will resist a move like that."
And even though customers expect things for a standard cable bill, they're starting to get used to the idea of paying a small fee to access team radio feeds and other real-time information, as they do for NASCAR.
"With what we have online and pay-per-view, we're starting to move toward specialized TV," Sportvision CEO Bill Squadron said. "Fifty percent of fans don't want to pay for extras, but 50 percent do, and that's the way I think it should be. If you want the extra features, you should be able to pay for them a la carte."
It's difficult to imagine that the future holds a greater array of nightly games, all of which is great for the serious sports fan. But some warn of a crash ahead. Ratings for regular-season games continue to slide, but the cost of showing those games continues to rise.
"Yes, there are a lot of sports out there, but there's still a demand for them," Turner Sports President Mark Lazarus said. "But we're going to get to the tipping point where they're going to get less money and maybe even not as many games. The two sports with the highest ratings are shown less than any other sport -- the NFL and NASCAR. Is that an argument for less sports? Maybe."
Lazarus defends his network's NBA coverage by saying Turner shows games twice a week, and those broadcasts can't be shown on any other channel.
Still, when you add Turner's games to coverage from ESPN, ABC, regional cable channels and pay-per-view packages, games aren't exactly hard to find. We're just starting to hit a point where networks cut back their schedule.
However, reaching a saturation point more likely means networks need to change their course. They've done just that in the past when presented with issues such as the growth of cable, video games and the Internet. The big events, while losing ratings from years past, still hold up extremely well when compared to other popular programming on TV.
It's the every-day regular-season events that need an octane boost to help draw more viewers, which is where the video-game concept and interactive TV comes in.
Goren and other executives say what we've seen so far is tame compared to what's ahead.
"I'll know interactive TV has made it when instead of watching a game and then turning it off and putting in Madden NFL 2003, you're able to put something into an interactive TV program and actually play against what Steve Spurrier or Jon Gruden are doing at that very moment," Goren said, his voice becoming more excited.
"That puts you into the broadcast and into the game. And at the end of the broadcast, we can run the best scores and who won, and that's pretty cool."