FOR A CRASH COURSE in modern media excess, look no further than the college football bowl season, whose Dec. 19 kickoff inaugurates a mind-boggling 32 games over an elongated three-week span.That’s right: Ohio State doesn’t play Florida in the Bowl Championship Series finale until Jan. 8, providing the sports punditocracy more time to dissect the existing system for determining who’s No. 1. To accommodate the surplus of games, five are scheduled after everyone’s New Year’s Day hangover evaporates, balancing the handful televised before Christmas. Football’s rules are confusing to many, with jargon like “illegal formation” and “intentional grounding”; still, absurdities abound in the bowl picture that should be recognizable to anybody with a TV, who will quickly discern trends that apply not just to football but across a broad cross-section of media: Gin up controversy, then debate it endlessly. The BCS has rarely produced a clear-cut championship game, which is a boon to those who profit from prattling on about how screwy the process is. This is of course a recurring stunt in cable news, where made-up crises outfitted with “news alert” tags and exclamation points (“The War on Christmas!”) transform back-of-the-book items into finger-pointing shouting matches. Expanding choice promotes mediocrity. Remember when college football culminated on New Year’s Day with a climactic orgy of games, rather like a Fourth of July fireworks show? No longer. Because the bowls start so early and drag on well into January, the glut creates enormous demand for teams to fill them. Colleges thus become “bowl eligible” simply by winning half their games, ensuring a lot of matchups between second-rate teams who once would have stayed home — in the same way that cable nets frequently stock their shelves with second-tier reality concepts, which explains the recycling of Mr. T, Kiss’ Gene Simmons and Danny Bonaduce as celeb-reality stars. Every issue has two passionate sides. The talk space thrives on conflict, so every dispute must have a “pro” and “con,” even if it’s about something as inconsequential as whether Rutgers got shafted by the bowl-selection committee or Central Michigan’s defense can contain Middle Tennessee’s offense. Everyone will know the answers soon enough, but until then, dammit, let’s argue and speculate. Predictions go down the memory hole. As unburdened by conscience as “The McLaughlin Group,” sports analysts regularly spew forth utterly wrongheaded prognostications and live to opine again. If meteorologists, air-traffic controllers or even drunks in a bar displayed a similar success rate, they’d be out on their ear before the first commercial break. Technology foments confusion. Since incorporating computer rankings into its formula, the BCS has joined touch-screen voting, the Nielsen ratings and online polls as institutions where more data equals less confidence that the system is working properly. High-tech blessings surely make life faster and easier while delivering consumers more options, but they rarely manage to make things fairer, simpler or more logical. Sell, sell, sell those sponsorships. Nearly every bowl now enjoys an integrated-into-the-name sponsor, giving rise to the MPC Computers Bowl, Champs Sports Bowl, Meineke Bowl, Chick-fil-A Bowl and my personal favorite, the Papa John’s.com Bowl. (Not the actual pizza place, mind you, but its .com.) Thanks to the beneficence of these sponsors — along with the fact that two-thirds of the games air on ESPN or a cable sibling, channels that derive revenue from subscriber fees — ratings become less significant. At the same time, like “The Apprentice,” the games provide a wholesome environment for corporations to polish their images while gaining TV exposure for middle-aged CEOs and marketing directors — only adorned here in garishly colorful jackets. Stay on your toes Anything unpredictable is interesting. And here lies the rub: Sports remain an irresistible staple of the TV diet — no matter how the NCAA, networks and sponsors endeavor to mess them up — because we can’t foresee the outcome. In a media where so much is predigested and spit back at the audience, sporting events possess the aura of possibility that has helped reality TV and “American Idol” flourish — the perfect distraction for increasingly jaded viewers prone to believe less and less in what they see. Be careful what you wish for. While the current bowl scenario stinks, remember Winston Churchill’s cautionary quote about democracy: “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those others that have been tried.”
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