You can’t smell the tear gas on TV.
This is always true, no matter how vigorously TV news tries to document street protests and riots. But never more emphatically, glaringly, true than now, as the Confederations Cup unfolds in Brazil, live on TV here, and the disconnect emerges between the spectacle of sport and the reality of the streets outside the stadium.
The case of Brazil, chosen for the next year’s World Cup and the Summer Olympics in 2016, offers a salutary lesson in the limits of television and the confines under which it operates. Watch the coverage of the Confederations Cup here – all the glorious soccer on display on CBC, TLN and Sportsnet World – and you’ll see the parameters of TV’s limitations. Each game is preceded by a short, sunny profile of the host city. Pretty pictures of the locale, all sunny beaches and happy locals either kicking a ball around or dressed in full regalia for the coming game. This is standard. It’s the establishing shot for all major sports tournaments and what the viewer expects.
The problem with the Confederations Cup, to the consternation of broadcasters, FIFA and the government of Brazil, is that the establishing shot is now an outright lie. Away from the stadium, sometimes in the street immediately outside, tear gas hangs in the air, the angry voices of tens of thousands are raised, placards are carried, chants echo and raw unhappiness reigns.
And perhaps the real problem in Brazil is not the rise in bus fares, the sense of political paralysis or the perception of corruption. It is the local realization of the gap between the spectacle and the specific, between what’s contrived at vast expense for the world’s consumption on TV and what exists in the banal particular. It’s very difficult to capture that realization on TV because it undermines what television does – it enables and presents to us the spectacle. If the gap between the spectacle and the specific is an insult to the intelligence, television will either ignore it or be unnerved by it.
Mind you, it’s hardly fair to blame the medium or those who control it. We all buy into the glory of the spectacle. The World Cup, the Olympics – summer or winter – the Euro soccer tournaments, the Pan Am Games, are fabulous entertainment, games and competitions made more exotic and interesting by their setting in a distant country, made more vivid and compelling by the common experience of watching the spectacle in the host country from all over the world.
Being on the ground at a World Cup or other massive sports event is vastly different from experiencing it as a TV event. The dynamic can vary from giddy excitement to fatigue with the burden of the event. Last year, I arrived in Warsaw the day before the start of the Euro 2012 tournament, held in Poland and Ukraine. Locals in their thousands were walking around the exterior of the huge new stadium in Warsaw, in awe of it, eager to have the tournament under way. The cost of the stadium didn’t matter. The building was symbolic of Poland’s arrival as a modern European country. The fact that it might never be full again, after the tournament, was irrelevant. That’s human nature. And the scenes of people walking around in awe would have made good TV. It was not about soccer, but about Poland’s sense of itself.
Conventional TV doesn’t really do on-the-ground coverage. Brazil’s situation is different from Poland’s and somebody should have seen the protests coming. Soccer is woven into the texture of Brazil’s soul, and the protests are not against the Confederations Cup or the World Cup, but against the visible gap between the outrageous costs of facilitating the tournaments and the misery of local existence. That was never going to be noted and part of the TV coverage.
The fact is that television’s coverage of sports is as shallow as it is vast. Soccer is a way into a country’s culture and while there is plenty of soccer on TV, there is near-zero coverage of the sociology of the game and what it says about a country. To some of us, the most extraordinary aspect of the recent protests in Turkey was the unity of supporters of Istanbul’s three main soccer clubs, Fenerbahce, Galatasaray and Besiktas, in joining the protests, together. They are sworn enemies and if they unify, something truly significant has happened. Further, to anyone who knows the soccer world, the supporters of Besiktas, known as the Carsi, are famous for being highly organized, politicized and leftist. If they’re involved, there is bound to be anti-government, anti-authority defiance. The protests in Turkey were fuelled by people who organize mass demonstrations in a soccer stadium almost every week.
I didn’t see that on TV. I don’t see much understanding of the Brazil protests on TV. It’s not TV’s mission, one supposes, any more than it’s television’s mission to deliver the bitter stench of tear gas.
Saving Hope (CTV, 10 p.m.) returns for its second season, and without support from NBC, which broadcast the Canadian series last summer. Things are different in the new episodes. In the first season, the core story was about Dr. Charlie Harris (Michael Shanks) who was injured and in a coma just before his marriage to Dr. Alex Reid (Erica Durance). While in the coma, his spirit wandered the hospital, observed and commented. Now, apparently, he’s very much alive and well. So the usual medical stories unfold. With that vaguely supernatural quality gone, the show is more bland than ever. Mind you, some people can’t get enough of hospital dramas and, with few new shows airing, Saving Hope will satisfy some viewers’ needs.
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