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The Six-Box

Written April 4, 2007


Let me start with a flashback, so that you know that I'm not merely being an old fogy when I have a negative reaction to the latest innovation in TV sports.

In 1985, employed by Total Communications Systems, I did a little thinking ahead.  Considering the way that our company worked, it was not impossible that one day the boss would tell me that I was going to be in charge of our Penn State football telecasts.  But the boss would want a new idea, something that would set our telecasts apart, something that would distinguish them from all the other football on TV.  What was I going to do about it?

I thought it might be wise to have a new idea already prepared.  So I came up with the T-Box.

T was my company's first initial, and my first initial, and the central graphic element in my idea, which I've simulated here.  Notice the blue T?

Two cameras, the "game" camera in the pressbox and another camera high in one end zone, would shoot the action in a widescreen format.  We would insert other stuff over the bottom half of their usual field of view, cropping it to a 16:6 aspect ratio.  One of these two cameras, or a replay of one of them, would always be in the top half of the screen.

The remaining cameras would shoot tighter, focusing on quarterbacks and receivers and coaches and cheerleaders and such.  One of them, or a replay of one of them, would always be in the lower left of the screen, squeezed down to half its original height and width.

And the lower right quadrant would be reserved for my graphics, on the screen all the time, including the all-important sponsor logos.

The boss would also note approvingly that no other broadcasters could steal our footage, because it would always be in our distinctive T-Box format.

Well, as it turned out, I never had to propose my innovation.  And it was just as well, I thought.  Personally, I prefer the usual method of televising football.  My idea would have changed that method merely for the sake of doing something different.

But then last night, ESPN2 did something really different for the NCAA women's basketball championship game.  Did you see this?

The conventional game action, squeezed down to half its original height and width, is in the largest box on the upper right.  To the left: cameras isolated on each coach.  Below: cameras isolated on a key player from each team, plus a center box, here showing stats but sometimes showing replays.  (Even in high-def, these tiny replays were so small that you couldn't see much.)  And there are other graphics all over the rest of the screen.  Later in the game, they started listing not only points but also fouls for every player.

The announcers on this channel didn't describe the play-by-play action.  Instead, they conversed in general terms about the teams and especially their coaches.  Occasionally the announcers or a guest would appear in one of the six boxes.

Despite what you might think, I suppose the philosophy here is not really to see how much can be crammed into 720 by 1280 pixels.  It's to offer the viewer many choices.  If Candace Parker is your favorite player, just follow her in the lower right corner.  If you want to know how many points she has, just look higher up on the screen.  You can make up your own telecast!  Or you can wander in confusion as I did, not sure whether I should be watching Pat Summitt or checking out the turnover stats, and therefore never really seeing anything.

Fortunately, the folks in Bristol didn't want us to use this as our main source for the game.  There was a conventional high-def telecast over on regular ESPN, using the conventional philosophy.

I was always taught that a telecast should tell a story.  It should present the most significant images from one moment to the next.

At this point in the game, both player isos are merely duplicating part of the overall game coverage.  The Rutgers bench is not a relevant image right now.  Blocked shots is not a relevant stat right now, nor is Myia McCurdy's failure to score.  Until these things become relevant, none of them should be on the screen.

Just tell me a single, coherent story, and I'll sit back and watch it.



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