Sports TV is now being broadcast
The new book by the UCI media scientist examines the development of sports broadcasts
By Christine Byrd
There was a time when entire families gathered around their televisions to watch the same thing at the same time. With the advent of streaming services, on-demand content, and binge-watching, hardly any program brings people together like this – with the exception of live sports broadcasts.
“The sports media use a regular, ritualized schedule that is not about bingeing. Either you watch the Super Bowl or you miss it, ”said Victoria E. Johnson, professor of film, media and African American studies at the University of California at Irvine and author of the upcoming book Sports TV (Routledge, 2021). .
The book looks at the genre from a distinctly humanistic perspective and examines American history, culture, class, race and identity through the lens of broadcasting.
“The subjects in the book are timeless,” says Johnson. “The broadcast media conventions of the 1950s have certainly changed, but many remain consistent and stable.”
Over the decades, television sports have created melodrama and community based on geography, culture, and class rivalries. With the advent of new technology, from smartphone apps to video games like “NBA 2K,” live sports broadcasts have quickly incorporated new elements to attract and retain a new generation of viewers.
“Even in a relatively cumbersome sport like the Professional Golf Association, we’re seeing a real effort to appeal to diverse audiences through video game aesthetics,” says Johnson. For example, the PGA now uses video tracking technology to display the speed and curve of the ball being hit from the tee, resulting in a television image that resembles a video game.
In addition to exploring the evolving aesthetic of broadcasting sports, Johnson’s book covers a wide range of topics including television policy and business practices, sports documentaries, women’s voices in sports, political speeches by athletes, and fan practices outside the home.
Johnson’s interest in sports began at a young age. Growing up in small Midwestern university towns where her father was a law professor, she grew up on a regular sports diet. She had roots for her local soccer teams and was avidly playing multiple team sports – not because she was a gifted athlete, she explains, but because all local children were encouraged to participate year-round.
Raised in the Midwest, television depictions of Los Angeles fascinated Johnson. When she moved to LA as a PhD student to study cinema and television at USC, she literally and figuratively looked at rural America from a different perspective, much like the cities of her childhood. This new perspective sparked her interest in cultural geography and the role of class, race and gender in how film and television portray the Midwest as the “heartland” of the country.
Johnson explored this interest in her first book, Heartland TV: Prime Time Television and the Struggle for US Identity (New York University Press, 2008), which won the Society for Cinema and Media Studies’ 2009 Katherine Singer Kovacs Book Award the field. In February of this year in particular, Johnson was elected president-elect by SCMS membership. Her term of office begins on July 1, 2021, and she becomes president of the organization in 2023.
Johnson notes that “there is a long tradition of studying television from a communications and social science perspective, but less from a humanities perspective, which regards television as a social and cultural object that is always in dialogue with other institutions.” With this perspective, Johnson was appointed to the UCI in 2002 when the university’s film and media studies program became a full-fledged department. Since then, the Department of Film and Media Studies has flourished. It now has 17 faculties, three of which specialize in television. As of 2018, the major in Film and Media Studies will be the largest Bachelor’s degree at the School of Humanities.
“We have a huge, amazing faculty with research specialties from post-colonial cinema to queer video games,” said Johnson. “It’s a really robust department that deals with international and national cinema, film history and new media.”
In Johnson’s courses at UCI, she covers the history of broadcasting, contemporary television and industrial practices, the critical theory of television, and a course on sports media and racing. The breadth and commitment of her classes are just a few reasons why she won the School of Humanities Award in 2012 for excellence in basic education.
Over the years, Johnson not only gained recognition for her work as a professor, but also gained a growing reputation as an expert on broadcasting scholarships. Routledge publisher asked her to write sports television as part of a series that includes volumes, reality TV, sitcoms, lifestyle shows, and more. While her book only examines mainstream sports in the US, Johnson hopes it will provide a framework for UCI students and others to evaluate and examine how other sports – like mixed martial arts or international soccer – come from decades of broadcasting traditions and at the same time incorporate modern digital extensions attract new target groups.
In the final chapter of Sports TV, Johnson looks at cities like Cleveland and St. Louis in the Rust Belt, which invested in state-of-the-art sports facilities for a boom in sports tourism. What guides this chapter is their interest in how these cities fare as post-pandemic sporting events gradually invite fans back to the stands.
Now, a year after the quarantine in which Johnson finished the book and adopted a “pandemic puppy,” she is watching closely how sport will adapt to the new economic realities and make up for lost profits at the gates. She also watches closely how quickly leagues are integrating betting apps into professional sports television, especially as gambling is increasingly legalized across the country. She claims that biometrics, which helped gamify the sport of broadcasting, laid the foundation for including betting on live broadcasts.
“This is what makes sport so good: merge the older media practices with the contemporary ones,” she says. “From traditional, melodramatic, great movie effects to cutting edge digital technologies, including second screen engagement, apps and sports video games.”
For Johnson, the question is not whether sports television will emerge from the pandemic, but how it will change and adapt to the new reality – and continue to grapple with the same issues it always has. It’s a must see on TV for Johnson and sports fans across the country.
Sports TV is officially available March 25th and can be pre-ordered at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Routledge.