Sunday, June 18, 2006

2006 FIFA World Cup on HDTV

U.S. striker Brian McBride
wins the ball against Italy
on Saturday, June 19, 2006
It's the most widely viewed sporting event in the world, according to Wikipedia: soccer's quadrennial World Cup, now taking place in Germany under the aegis of the sport's international governing organization, FIFA. According to the website (this article), "The cumulative audience over the 25 match days of the 2002 event reached a total of 28.8 billion viewers. ... These impressive figures make the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™ the most extensively covered and viewed event in television history."

Here in the United States, where soccer is at best a pastime and not the obsession it has long been in most of the rest of the world, every World Cup game is
, for the first time ever, available in glorious 720p high-definition television, on either ABC, ESPN, or ESPN2. You have, of course, to be able to receive all of these networks in their high-def glory, if you want access to all the games. That means you probably require either digital cable or broadcast satellite reception in your household, since only ABC is available over the air.

Yesterday I watched Team USA battle the Italians to a 1-1 tie on ABC-HD, courtesy of the digital ABC affiliate here in Baltimore: television station WMAR,
broadcasting over the air on channel 52, though WMAR-HD comes into my house on Comcast Cablevision's digital channel 210. (I find that I have to be careful to select channel 210, by the way, and not cable channel 12, which is a standard-def, analog version of the same WMAR fare.)

I watched the Italy game on a "DVR-delayed" basis. My digital cable box has a built-in digital video recorder, which I set up in advance to record ABC-HD's coverage. The coverage began at 2:00 PM here in this Eastern time zone. I watched it beginning at around 6:30. That way I could zip over all the commercials in the pre-game, halftime, and post-game shows. I could also replay moments in the game that I wanted to see again.

I watched the coverage on the 32" Hitachi plasma in my basement TV room, not on my 61" Samsung DLP rear projector in the living room. (For comparison, I may use the Samsung to watch the U.S.-Ghana match on Thursday.) The image was admittedly small, at my roughly 12-foot seating distance, but quite good. Overall, I'd say that HD adds a lot to soccer coverage.

It does so because, due to the nature of a game in which the ball can move so swiftly and unpredictably, the camera has to keep large portions of the field or "pitch" in view at all times. This wide-angle mandate makes the players appear as very small figures on the screen. It's not easy to identify them by either their looks or their jersey number, especially since the run of normal soccer play sees nearly every player move to just about every position on the field at some time or other. A so-called center midfileder, for instance, is apt to show up just about anywhere, from one end of the field to the other, possibly along the sidelines as well as in the middle of the pitch.

In HD on a relatively tiny screen such as my Hitachi's, the problem by no means goes away. Still, the sharp and colorful hi-def image does provide more identification cues than a non-HD image would. For one thing, the jersey numbers are easier to read. And it's easier to pick up on the players' hair colors/styles, plus their sundry skin tones. Even their distinctive shapes and sizes as human individuals are more apt to survive the rigors of TV transmission and show up meaningfully on your screen.

Color helps, and HDTV color is better — because of its wider intensity gamut — than SDTV color. The Italian national team is called "The Azzurri" ("The Blue") because of the bright blue hue of their uniforms, which contrasted sharply on my plasma screen with the white tops and dark navy shorts of our Yanks. And when the red cards came out in abundance, as an overzealous referee sent two Americans and one Italian off for various sorts of dangerous play, they showed up rather strikingly on my screen — as did the blood streaming down the face of American forward Brian McBride after Italian midfielder Daniele de Rossi elbowed him hard in the face. That was the foul that drew the initial ejection of the match.

So it's safe to say that HD can highlight the fact that soccer is a blood sport, after all.

Can HDTV make soccer more of a mainstream sport here in America, then? It's not impossible. Still and all, we Americans like our sports coverage "up close and personal," which means we like to see the faces of the players and coaches as often as we can. That's a tall order with soccer, since there are few pauses in the far-flung action into which a closeup shot might be inserted.

Baseball and American football are pause-laden by comparison. Basketball and hockey take place in confined arenas where zoomed-in camera shots don't risk missing the action. NASCAR races offer lots of opportunities for (previously recorded) head shots of everyone concerned to be superimposed over the festivities. In fact, most of our favorite sports are far more TV-friendly than soccer. The only one that comes readily to mind that is not is lacrosse — which is more of a niche or cult sport, anyway. (I'd like to see its popularity grow, rest assured. And that could indeed happen with more HDTV coverage.)

I'd like to see soccer coverage employ more picture-in-picture insets, split screens, etc. It would be great if the guy who's about to take a shot on goal could be framed in an inset close shot while another camera watched the broad sweep of action from afar. But that's not terribly realistic, since in any given "buildup" by an offensive team as it draws into goal-scoring range, any one of about seven players could wind up taking the shot — if there is a shot.

More realistic might be to put a semi-permanent "close-up cam" on whichever key player the broadcast team wants us to focus on at any given stretch of the game. It could have been U.S. midfielder Landon Donovan for most of yesterday's match, since he was roundly criticized by Coach Bruce Arena (and by himself) for lackluster play in the Americans' shameful loss to the Czech Republic. Donovan played his heart out against Italy, especially after his team was reduced to nine men early in the second half. It's too bad we couldn't see more of him on the screen.

Later in the game, Donovan's co-midfielder DaMarcus Beasley could have been spotlighted. He was benched as a starter after the Czech Republic game and then came on late in the Italy match as a substitute. Despite the announcers' hopes that he might spark a winning goal, he seems to me to have taken very few chances in his brief minutes on the field. I would have liked to have been able to keep a closer eye on him.

But inset shots, when they do pop into view, always seem to find the corner of the screen where the ball is about to go. There probably needs to be some as-yet-unavailable way to coordinate the director's doubled-up use of screen real estate with exactly how the camera operators are framing their shots on a second-by-second basis. If the ball darts behind a screen inset that is being shown atop the main picture, have the main camera pan or tilt just enough to bring the ball back in view — that kind of thing.

Cooler yet would be some way for the viewer to hide or show
at will what amounts to a picture-in-a-picture, using the remote control to bring up the inset and move it to one corner or another of the screen. With digital TV transmissions, that's not an absolute impossibility, but I won't hold my breath for it, either.

All in all, I'd say that HD enhances soccer coverage, but it won't put it over the top in Americans' estimation any time soon, because the game as seen on TV simply doesn't lend itself to the kind of up-close-and-personal visuals we crave. For example, the news photo which I borrowed for the top of this piece is not the type of framing you're ever likely to get on TV, hi-def or not. That's too bad, because a photo like this conveys how hard it is to play soccer well ... and the TV coverage simply doesn't.

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