Sunday, January 25, 2004

SkyCam, the cable-supported overhead camera seen at major sporting events, is hardly new technology. Its predecessors date to the early 1980s, and it has been in extensive use since Carolina Panthers running back Rod Smart was known as “He Hate Me” in his XFL days three years ago.

The camera, however, has reached a new level of fan awareness and heated debate this month as the NFL playoffs lead to Sunday’s Super Bowl. Far from an additional bell-and-whistle for a telecast, SkyCam, at least for the moment, has become the most-talked-about element in sports TV.

CBS, rather late to the party, recorded its first major use with the camera two weeks ago for the New England-Tennessee AFC divisional playoff game, and within minutes of the opening kickoff ignored years of precedent established by rival game producers.

Instead of using SkyCam (also known as Cablecam, depending on the manufacturer) very selectively and almost always on replays, CBS liberally employed it during live action. Field goals, extra points, kickoff returns, punts and red zone offensive plays each saw numerous views with the overhead camera, jettisoning the 50-yard-line view used for more than four decades of televised football and introducing an angle much more akin to video games.

Fox also has boosted the live use of the camera during field goals and kickoffs. These increases prompted thousands of fan complaints, particularly to CBS, and angry newspaper columns from coast to coast. In a somewhat surprising response, CBS readily admits it has gone a bit loopy this month with Cablecam and promises a much more “judicious” use during Super Bowl XXXVIII.

“The first time we had it in Foxboro a couple of weeks ago, we were kind of enamored with it — probably used it a bit too much,” said Sean McManus, CBS Sports president. “If you saw the way [director Larry Cavolina] used it this past week back in Foxboro, I think that’s basically the way we’re going to use it [in the Super Bowl]. We’re still feeling our way.”

The brouhaha is causing significant concern for CF InFlightInc., the Pennsylvania company that makes SkyCam. It has a contract with ABC and ESPN for football, while CBS and Fox use the rival Cablecam, produced by California-based Cablecam International, for its NFL games.

“People are confusing our product with theirs, and that’s not what we want,” said Roland Thompson, CF Inflight president. “The product was never intended to be used the way it has [during the NFL playoffs]. You do it too much like we’ve seen and people start feeling queasy.

“The XFL was our product, and that was definitely overuse, too. But we’ve learned a lot since then. Our product was in place for last year’s Super Bowl, and the complaint you heard then was that it wasn’t used often enough.”

Cablecam International, meanwhile, is actively touting the presence of its camera at the Super Bowl.

The heightened interest in SkyCam and Cablecam is essentially a search to find new ways to cover a football game and provide a better sense of the quarterback’s viewpoint, as well as draw in more casual viewers. Diehard NFL fans will watch key games regardless of who plays or how the telecast is produced. But with live marquee sports now showing more resilience to ratings erosion than most prime-time entertainment programming, network executives need the mass draw of big-time sports more than ever.

In that context, SkyCam and Cablecam serves the same purpose as the pop and rap stars that are now a halftime fixture of every major playoff and All-Star game.

But to many viewers, the technology is just as jarring as Roseanne screeching the national anthem or Kiss playing at the Super Bowl. The camera does not have optimal depth perception, making it rather difficult to decipher the action on long pass plays and kicks beyond 30 yards. Wide receivers often run out of frame. The yellow first down line, now an indispensable part of televised football, is not visible with SkyCam and Cablecam.

Worse yet, the networks readily admit using SkyCam and Cablecam is essentially a guessing game.

“When it’s used live, it’s really a matter of guessing right,” said Troy Aikman, Fox Sports analyst. “I think it’s effective when you use it live and it’s a running play. You’re able to follow it and track it and are able to see the blocks. Now if they drop back and pass and it swings to the outside, you lose a lot of the action or it’s down the field. I prefer it more as a replay camera.”

Veteran watchers of TV sports also could liken SkyCam and Cablecam to the replay clicker John Madden couldn’t keep his hands off a decade or so ago. That technology ultimately was left behind, joining the telestrator pen, announcer-less game and glowing puck on the industry scrap heap.

SkyCam and Cablecam, however, are in no way poised to become part of that endangered list. The cameras are quickly becoming relatively inexpensive, rather mobile and small, and are now readily used for hockey, basketball, and extreme and Olympic sports. What remains is the human intervention to match its capabilities.

“I think that when you have a new toy, the tendency may be to overuse it,” said Fox Sports president Ed Goren. “We really try to be selective and not go to the well too often with it. In this case, less is more.”

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