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Open wide and say aah, guys

Hung up on the close-up, football coverage loses sight of the big picture

It's time to strike a deal with the guys in the TV truck. For too long they've been shooting football so tightly that all we've seen are close-ups of the quarterback's helmet. I don't know about you, but I've been zonked out on zoom-ins for five years. Helmets are nice, but when TV shoots them we don't see the line of scrimmage. And when the action starts, we don't see downfield blockers or approaching tacklers. What's going on? Are we supposed to be watching a picture show or a football game?

So here's the deal. Call it SI's Camera Compact of '85: The guys in the truck start shooting the game the way it should be shot, with a lot more wide-angle coverage complementing the up-close, in-your-face-mask shots. And they start using that revolutionary new camera known as Skycam during the regular season, assuming that the not-always-progressive NFL approves it after last weekend's tryout in San Diego. For our part, we stop complaining about those irritating studio updates in which Brent Musburger or Bob Costas breaks into the one game we want to see to show how the Saints-Bills score just went from 28-7 to 35-7. And we also go mum on our other pet peeves, such as ABC's self-promoting Monday-night stats. ("Well, I'll be.... Seventh straight time the Cowboys have scored at least three first-quarter points on Monday Night Football!")

To these eyes, the tight shot in football has become a cliché. Ten years ago the zoom shot of a player's eyes was extraordinary. Now it induces acute boredom. The cameras and lenses are so advanced they can show Pete Rozelle's signature on the football. They've become toys, and naturally the guys in the truck are enamored of them. They should be used with more discretion. I'd rather see the big picture. Replays of kickoffs, punts and passes usually show nothing of value until the ball is caught. Even then, the ballcarrier is framed so tightly that tacklers show up as occasional arms and legs flashing around the edges of the screen.

Cable-TV and independent crews are easily the worst shooters of football, but the networks, with all their experience and high technology, should be much better than they are. CBS and NBC should use John Madden's Chalkboard and Bob Griese's Telestrator, respectively, with their accompanying wide-angle replays every game. And they should use Skycam. Owned by its inventor, Garrett Brown of Philadelphia, this $500,000, 40-pound piece of equipment looks like a sink disposal unit visiting from outer space. Skycam is suspended over the playing field by four computer-controlled guy wires. By manipulating a joystick, Skycam's operator can rapidly move the camera up, down and all around to an infinite number of positions above the field.

When used properly, Skycam yields shots that are simply wonderful. Imagine yourself on a flying carpet, 20 feet above and behind a wedge of blockers moving downfield as they open a swath for the ballcarrier. There's only one Skycam in existence, though, and there have been problems. Last year, for instance, during a preseason test in Los Angeles, it ran smack into a goalpost. But last weekend's tryout in a game between the Chargers and Cowboys was golden. The NFL, with its ratings woes, should embrace Skycam—and the instant replay as an officiating tool—pronto. Therefore, it probably won't.

As for those updates, it's going to take superhuman discipline not to knock them. Two reasons there are so many updates are ego and money. Musburger wants to be on. And the network has a studio fired up, so why not go to it every other minute? Why not stay with the game and crawl updated scores across the screen? Which poses a higher question: Is this a telecast we're watching or a special service for bettors?

Nor will it be easy to suffer quietly the other excesses of TV football. There are those contrived Looney Tunes shots of fans without shirts, wearing tiger paws on their faces. Then there are those vacuous halftime interviews with college coaches on ABC. "We'll have to come back and play a better second half is about as profound as they ever get.

But as they say in the used-car game, a deal is a deal. We'll never utter another word if TV shows us more of the fury of the Raiders' pass rush and less of the color of Joe Montana's eyes.


With Skycam, the viewer can float above and along with the action.