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Move Over, Heidi: A Bigger Swiss TV Disaster

June 25th, 2008 · 6 Comments · soccer

Germany and Turkey in the semifinals of the Euro Cup today. A game of no little interest among soccer fans. With more than a few television viewers around the globe. I’m going to throw out a number … oh, let’s say ONE BILLION people watching …

And the feed from Basil, Switzerland goes dead. Twice. In the second half of a 1-1 game. Which probably led to more names being taken in vain, more rants at local cable providers and more bricks traveling through TV screens than any single event in history.

Even the infamous “Heidi” NFL game, back in the 1960s, when NBC decided not to stay with a Jets-Raiders game that was running long and switched to a dopey movie involving little Swiss Miss “Heidi” … couldn’t hold a candle to this.

This time, the talking heads were blaming it on lightning. I’m sure that went over real well, all over the globe.

First interruption, maybe 15 minutes left. The Germans are pressing the action but the under-strength Turks are hanging on. And the screen goes black. Then there’s a shot of fans standing on a hill somewhere clearly NOT in the stadium. Like, what?

ESPN is showing this live, and a couple of guys with British Isles accents are left talking about nothing. More black on the screen. The shot of the fans. More black. The game commentators throw it back to the studio, where Rece Davis, Julie Foudy and that Tommy Smyth guy talk about what might be happening.

For a minute. Then three. Then five.

At first, I’m wondering why they didn’t just leave it with the game commentators. They could at least describe what’s going on, like radio, right? Even though nobody in America has ever heard a soccer game without seeing it. Soccer post-dating the TV revolution, at least in this country.

And then I realized those guys weren’t in the stadium, either. Almost had to be in a Bristol, Conn., studio just talking about the game from over in Europe. And the only thing sillier than “studio hosts” talking about something they couldn’t see … would be the “game announcers” not talking about a game that, no, they couldn’t see either.

It had to be a humbling moment for the TV guys. Sitting there with nothing. Not even an open phone line to someone in the stadium. I mean, anyone. Even a fan. Maybe some newspaper guy could have called Bristol and told ESPN what was going on.

While we were “away” … getting more annoyed by the second … Germany scored. The first picture that came up was of German fans waving flags. On that hill, wherever it was. From that, Davis or Smyth deduced that “Germany must have scored.” Then somebody with access to a live web site must have told them that, yes, that was the case …

And then the three people in the studio — and Davis repeated again and again that it was a world-wide feed problem, not just ESPN’s — talked some more about the meaning of the goal they hadn’t seen, and how the Turks were certainly done now … and it was laughable.

Finally, they got us back to real action, but not until after Turkey had scored to tie the game. We didn’t see that goal, either. No. We saw Turkey fans celebrating, our first shot of something back in Switzerland. And eventually we got a shot from the stadium, of real players, and Turkey players were celebrating. And eventually they ran tape of that goal, as well as the German goal from earlier that we had missed.

By the grace of satellites and coaxial cables, the telecast stayed up till Philipp Lahm of Germany scored in the 90th minute, giving Germany a 3-2 lead. At least we got to see that …. before the screen went black again.

Back to the studio. More spluttering and hemming and hawing, and a shot of those “fans on a hill” and when they celebrated, the ESPN guys guessed the match was over … and it turns out it wasn’t … and then they cheered some more, and this time the match was over, but the TV guys were guessing again … And finally we get a minute or two of postgame reaction from the stadium — before ESPN has the audacity to go to about five minutes solid of commercials.

Ack! What a train wreck.

Shows us, again, what prisoners we are of technology. And also how helpless we are when it fails.

Maybe, in the future, major networks with big audiences at an event like this, should have backup systems in place. And if that means a cameraman with a phone, so be it. A friend of a friend who got tickets to the game and is sitting behind a goal. Anything.

Maybe the Beijing organizers were watching. No one event at the Olympics will have the interest that this soccer match had, but the Chinese may want to consider ways to get pictures back to viewers — even if a random lightning strike intervenes. Nothing enrages viewers like a black screen.

I imagine hundreds of millions of soccer fans could tell you about it.



6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Doug // Jun 25, 2008 at 5:32 PM

    I am old enough to remember the Heidi fiasco, though that was self inflicted. ESPN apparently had no control over today’s mess, though that doesn’t make it any less infuriating. The match is being shown again (6 p.m. PDT) on ESPN Classic without the technical difficulties. The “fans standing on a hill” are really in what is called a fan zone, where cities set up giant screens for fans who couldn’t attend to watch the game. You are correct that ESPN didn’t send announcers to Europe. They are using their ESPN International announcers for play-by-play, primarily Scotsman Derrick Rae, Englishman Adrian Heaney and Irishman Tommy “Onion Bag” Smythe, augmented by Scotsman Andy Gray, a big time analyst in Britain.

  • 2 Lazioman // Jun 26, 2008 at 12:34 PM

    ESPN had no control over the Vienna feed. What ESPN SHOULD have had control over is access to the field of play they were supposedly covering!! Where was any attempt at live commentary from inside the stadium for the 20-odd minutes their connection was lost? A bloody employee with a cellphone hanging from a stachion would have been better than 3 idiots speculating on what was ocurring based on pictures of German fan activity. Is Disney banned from the venues they cover?
    Julie Foudy and Tommy Smyth’s inane valium grins during the unseen crescendo of a brilliant sporting event will be weeks fading from memory..

  • 3 Damian // Jun 26, 2008 at 6:05 PM

    Yesterday was a promising lunch ruined at a local sports bar, thanks to the feed. Blaming ESPN, which had no one on hand at the match and has no interest in getting Euro ’08 credentials, for the feed is misplaced blame. They have no control over a feed they have paid someone else to operate for them.

    But I do remember that idiot Pedro Gomez being in Austria/Switzerland and filing live reports during the group phase. I guess he came home early, or else he would have been the likely go-to guy when the feed was out.

    What we can blame ESPN for is its lousy studio crew and forcing us to listen to Rece Davis, Julie Foudy and Tommy Smyth at home. Getting Andy Gray was a coup I was shocked by. For years, Gray has been the color man accompanying England’s most revered play-by-play man, Martin Tyler, on major English international and club matches. Gray is enjoyable to listen to. Derek Rae is okay. Another guy whose accent makes his reputation.

    Tommy Smyth is a bumbling baffoon, only hired by ESPN because he has an Irish accent. And what has Ireland ever done in world football? He has no significant experience in the game, is a master of the obvious and watches matches with those Guinness-soaked lenses. You wonder what game he is watching half the time when he opens his mouth.

    I am conflicted slightly because I am eternally grateful to ESPN for airing the World Cup, the Euros, the Champions League and being a proponent of soccer. But the broadcast personnel they employ for their soccer is a blatant insult to the intelligence of real soccer fans. Going back for years, Jack Edwards knew nothing about soccer, and it showed, Rob Stone knows nothing about soccer, and it showed, and neither does Rece Davis or whatever SportsCenter anchor they use to fill a role in their coverage.

    The only guys worth retaining on ESPN’s soccer team (you can’t count Gray, who is only making a cameo) is Rae, JP Dellacamera and John Harkes. Not sure if Wynalda is still in the mix, but he works, too.

    Glory, Glory Man United!

  • 4 Don Imus // Jun 27, 2008 at 8:28 AM

    Yeah, that beer-soaked, potato-eating Mick, Tommy Smyth, has no business calling soccer matches. When did ESPN drop its “No Irish need apply” policy?

  • 5 Ian // Jun 29, 2008 at 9:41 PM

    Boy Damian, you’re going to be either pissed or ecstatic when ESPN wins the U.S. broadcast rights for the Premier League in 2010. I can’t tell which.

    I don’t mind Tommy and the onion bag. He’s neutral to me. But if I ever hear another word from Eric “When I played” Wynalda, I’m going to poke my eyes out.

    It’s not about having guys with accents. It’s also about guys who know a little more about the game, and that leaves out every American voice, even Harkes (who says “we” about teams regularly). Gimme Jon Champion any day.

  • 6 Ian // Jun 29, 2008 at 9:44 PM

    Oh, and Pedro Gomez isn’t an idiot. Not by a longshot. He’s the unlucky guy who got stuck covering the sports equivalent of the Lewinski scandal. He worked in Sacramento and Phoenix in print for a LONG time before he went to ESPN.

    I love torching ESPN guys (boo-ya), but Gomez is a really good journalist who drew the short straw and got stuck with the Bonds thing… and he’s the only guy they have who speaks spanish and likes soccer.

    You’d rather have live shots from Austria from Kelly Naqi?

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