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Published:February 20th, 2010 23:15 EST

TV Commentators Do a Poor Job Explaining Games' Intricacies

By Djelloul (Del) Marbrook (Editor/Mentor)

The television commentators covering the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada, are giving us a laboratory demonstration of how to narrow audiences. The network poobahs obsessed with ratings should read them the riot act. They ought to be at least as well trained for what they do as the athletes they`re covering.

TV Commentators

Take curling, for example. This medieval Scottish pastime is not visually intuitive like hockey and basketball and does not require the youthful athleticism of some winter sports but is being covered as if most viewers understood it. Why not take time to explain the history and purpose of the game, thereby broadening its audience base? It`s an inexplicably lost opportunity.

My wife and I, recovering from stomach flu, were fascinated by the competition between Danish and American women curlers the other night, but we only dimly understood the game. We`re avid baseball fans. We understand and appreciate ice hockey and downhill skiing. But we were at a loss to fathom the intricacies of curling. And we got no help at all from commentators who reveled in their own insider knowledge but shared nothing useful with us.

It`s the same with hockey or any of the other sports. Television manages to cover " the games without explaining them. Each game has a long, fascinating history. Each game has distinct rules, precedents and cultural significance. And yet all we get is trivial insider " gossip.

It`s silly and counterproductive to compel viewers to go to Wikipedia to fathom something they`re watching on television.
Any presumption that viewers understand all the winter games is untenable. Each game has an unprecedented opportunity to win new followers. Surely it ought to be the aim of the commentators to abet that process.

We watched the curling match between Denmark and the United States for more than an hour and not once did the commentators bother to tell us what home " meant, or why the court looks as it does, or what the colors signify or what they sweepers do and how their actions affect the moving stones. They have forgotten the cardinal rule of journalism that readers and viewers are foolishly grateful to have basics explained to them.

This is the way politics are covered, as if everybody understands the game and all the reporters have to do is act like smart-alecky insiders, setting the participants at each other`s throats and then pretending to moderate.

This is bad journalism in politics and it`s bad in sports. And from a business viewpoint, it`s unprofitable because it excludes rather than welcomes.

Note: A day after these remarks were posted CBS began explaining the game to its viewers. The friend who reported this to me calls curling bocce on ice.


Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy. 

His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal Latté first prize in fiction in 2008. His poems have been published in The American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, poemeleon, The Same, and other journals. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.

He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.