How to Broadcast Curling: notes for 2014

Posted on February 28, 2010


Most sporting events I watch on TV are broadcast exactly the way they were when I was a kid and TVs were small, square, and mostly black-and-white. And even worse, games on TV are still “called” the way they were on radio when my dad was a kid, with the play-by-play guy (yes, in the 21st century it’s still always a dude) naming virtually every player who contacts the ball/puck/etc.

I’ll talk about the way sporting action is shot, sport-by-sport, when each is in season. But for now I have some suggestions for curling broadcasters. I have watched curling off and on, for at most a few hours per year, most of my life. I haven’t noticed any change in the way it is shot for TV in all that time. (The one innovation — and this is significant — is to have the players mic’ed off so we can hear each team’s deliberations.)

Here is the current formula:

  • have a camera directly over the house — the way cooking shows have one over the stove — to see where the rocks lie. This is an indispensable shot; but it could be better used.
  • when someone is throwing the rock, have a cameraman rolling along with him/her, shooting him/her from 10-o’clock in a tight close-up, so we can surmise how good a shot he just threw by looking at his face.
  • cut immediately to a close shot, from vaguely overhead, that shows the moving rock and the sweepers. Hold this shot, with the camera moving overhead, until the rock reaches its final resting point.
  • then cut to the faces of the key person (e.g. the one who threw the rock, or someone on the other team) to see how he or she is reacting.
  • return to an overhead shot of the rocks in the house.
  • repeat 16 times each end for 10 ends (more if the game is tied after 10).

Here’s what we miss:

  • we never, ever see the length of the ice especially when the rock is in motion. This is like watching a close-up of the pitcher in baseball, followed by a close-up of the batter swinging, then a close-up of an outfielder snagging a fly ball.
  • so we never get a good sense of the amazing curled trajectory of the rock as it moves 140 feet or so curling as much as 4 or 5 feet to one side of the center line, and then back in, perhaps to the other side of the center line, landing often exactly on target.
  • we never get so see any visual evidence of how the sweeping changes the direction or trajectory of the rock.
  • we have no little sense of just how far away the target is, or of how long the ice surface is, and this undermines the casual viewer’s appreciation of the skills required. Have you ever noticed how much more impressive a long field goal looks in football when the camera is behind the kicker? (For decades we only saw field goal attempts from the perspective behind the goal posts, where the target was as wide as our entire field of vision. But in actual curling we don’t even see that much: we see the equivalent of a close-up of the kicker followed by a close-up of the referee signaling good or no-good.)
  • we have no visual indication that the game goes back and forth on the same ice surface, changing direction with each end. The ice conditions are significantly different in each direction, but we are not encouraged to notice this.

And here’s something else we don’t see on CNBC: the throwing of the first 4 rocks or so, along with a discussion of the strategies these opening gambits reveal. Each of the 10 ends take approximately 15-minute, and there is a short break between ends. But this does not leave enough time for advertisements. They assume these opening rocks are less important, so we rejoin play in progress. Fair enough. But at least explain what we’ve learned from the first throws.

So my camera suggestion is pretty simple: have a fixed camera at one end, and place it just a little over the heads of the players; or perhaps close to ice level. It should show the entire ice surface, though those 140 feet will probably look compressed the way the distance between the pitcher and the batter looks about one-third its distance in baseball. This camera should be used for most of each rock throw, from when it leaves the thrower’s hand to when it enters the house.

By using one camera on one end for the main shots, we will have a clear sense of them switching ends. For one end they will be throwing away from the camera, and for the next they will throw toward it. In both cases we should get a good sense of the curl of the rock.

So much for the visuals. (Of course, they should use other cameras between rock throws.)

How should the announcers and analysts be covering the game, especially in the US where an extremely small percentage of the viewership has curled? As I noted in the preceding post, there is an impressively large specialized vocabulary for curling, and this vocabulary is justified because there are a lot of relevant factors to describe in strategizing before each shot. The vocabulary often gives us one efficient word that would require a sentence or two of ordinary English to describe.

It would be unreasonable to abandon the vocabulary: the analysis would have to be shortened and dumbed down. What they need is a more prominent role for an “outsider” in the booth with the two experts. He or she has to be constantly representing the novice viewer and getting the experts to translate the most important analyses. They have such a person in the booth during these Olympics it seems, but he was too busy trying to impress the Canadian expert-announcers with his ability to talk curlingese.

They could also make better use of visuals, graphics, and telestrators. Surely there is, or will soon be, a critical mass of viewers with wide screens that will allow the networks to make use of split screens, especially between throws of the rock; say, with views involving graphics and arrows in one part of the screen, and other various shots of curlers talking or watching in the other.

Note to self: send these suggestions to the networks before the next Olympics. But expect more of the same.