IT’S NOT JUST whether you win or lose these days, but how well — and how much — you gab about the game.
Talk is cheap, which explains why TV provides so much of it; still, it’s jaw-dropping to step back and absorb the tremendous proliferation of blather, as the coalescence of reality television and cable news subjects everything — ev-er-y-th-ing — to time-stretching, mind-numbing, oh-boy-anything-could-happen analysis.
Think of the Kentucky Derby as the ideal model: The race itself doesn’t last very long, but between the handicapping and slow-motion replays, the whole affair can drag on for hours.
NBC’s revival of “American Gladiators” is the perfect apotheosis of these forces — a sports-like concoction that stripped to its core consists of far more talk than action. Contestants talk smack before each event, compete against the Gladiators, and then engage in wheezing postmortems immediately afterward.
The direct-to-camera confessionals of reality TV have become a staple in every sphere, feeding our perceived voyeuristic need to know not just who’s winning but how they feel about it.
In sports, coaches are now interviewed at halftime heading into and exiting the locker rooms, and many of them look pretty pissed about it. Despite that, there’s a push to wire more coaches and referees for sound. (Ever the rebel, Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson balked, complaining that fellow coaches “rolled over” and calling the concept “very ‘Big Brother’-ish. Those things are difficult to absorb.” Although he probably meant the Orwell version and not the CBS one, both comparisons apply.)
Star players are no longer allowed to hit the showers before sharing their thoughts. Hell, they don’t even have time to exult, with ESPN and TNT analysts thrusting microphones under their noses as soon as the horn sounds.
SUCH INANITY has permeated cable news, where wall-to-wall NFL coverage over the weekend blended into rambling about presidential primary results. There was CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, hyperventilating as a huge poll-closing clock counted down, so the network could tell us … absolutely nothing.
Unable to call the finish in pivotal South Carolina, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC performed a soft-shoe routine, throwing the spotlight to multiple correspondents, pundits and other sages hoping to disguise how little they actually knew — as if we needed further proof that MSNBC’s Chris Matthews with too much on his hands is a really bad idea.
Next up will be the Academy Awards, and if a just-released UCLA-Harvard study is any indication, that ceremony will also invite official-sounding people to deliver patently obvious conclusions, as academic researchers waded through 80 years of Oscar voting to determine that “serious subject matter” in movies classified as dramas is — brace yourselves — “the single greatest predictor of a nomination.”
Finally, an explanation why Laurel and Hardy didn’t win more often.
We can only thank our lucky stars that weather and snow flurries won’t be potential turnout factors in the Oscar balloting, as they were in South Carolina, though there is a chance of pickets in the forecast, with widely scattered marching and chanting.
THE IRONY in this endless pontification is that while heads talk more, the audience learns less, since each point must be parried by an equally predictable counter-point — whether it’s the strength of the Patriots’ defense, mud-slinging in a Democratic presidential debate or Mike Huckabee’s appeal beyond evangelicals. Watch enough TV and it begins blurring into one, until it’s easy to come away thinking the Patriots score well against evangelicals on a muddy field and that the former Arkansas governor’s candidacy is vulnerable to a short-passing game.
Nevertheless, we’re heading into a banner period for prognostication, juxtaposing two weeks of Super Bowl hype with breathless build-up toward Super Tuesday, followed by three weeks of unbridled Oscar speculation. Of course, by then we’ll be ready to start issuing predictions for the NCAA Final Four and, on the morning shows, pondering whether fans or favorites will triumph on “Survivor.”
Consider this the ultimate tradeoff of the digital, high-definition era. Thanks to modern gadgetry TV has never been more dazzling to the eye, but because all that capacity requires filling hours as cheaply as possible, it’s also never been harder on the ears.