THE IDEA of history repeating itself is not new. The idea of history repeating itself immediately is. Videotape technology of the '70s has brought us into what one media savant considers a "replay culture," in which we have been conditioned to expect that almost anything we experience throug TV may occur again, electronically, a moment later, Time is thus further warped and reality given still another twist by television, which had already been accused of twisting it into a macaroni casserole.
"Instant Replay," besides being the title of a current disco tune - and disco symptomatically glorifies unmodulated repetition more than any other musical form in history - inevitably brings sports to mind, but New York based media consultant Tony Schwartz notes that the replay concept saturates TV generally. "Strangely, most of television is replay," he says. "Old shows are constantly being reshown, and film is basically replay. Only real live news is instant, first-time ordained - or whatever they call it - or a space shot going off."
We have become so accustomed to waiting for the replay of a touchdown or a sterling pass in a football game that the touchdown and the pass themselves become the secondary experiences and the duplicate, the replay, becomes the event, like a reflection that takes over its subject. It is not at all unlikely that as the replay concept spreads into informational television generally, what happens will not seem as important as what rehappens, and images will be repeated with as much casual frequency as words are.
NBC's telecast of the 1978 World Series was a festival of replay; at times it looked as though the game itself might get in the way, as if the base hits and home runs were something to be endured on the way to the validating visual repeat that followed with stupefying regularity. After one has seen a shortstop scoop up the same grounder and throw it to the same first baseman four times, from four different angles and at varying speeds, the worth of this godsend from the hardware factory starts getting questionable.
Through the overuse of replay, NBC succeeded in nearly suffocating an essential element of contest sport - unpredictability. The World Series became disco television; virtually every play was given equal value with every other play by virtue of being repeated at least three times.
Schwartz, a through broadcast being, didn't mind all the replays and the replays of replays. "I find it as exciting as the game itself," he says. "The idea that you can see something from three or four different points of view makes it possible to play umpire as you never could before, and it tremendously increses your involvement with the game."
But surely there is little advantage in being able to watch poor Lour Piniella reach for a high fly ball, miss it, run into the wall, fall on the ground and turn a somersuit from four different angles, shown on right after the other. Replay can be disruptive, intrusive gimmick, and sports executives at the other networks, who understandably do not wish to be quoted by name, think NBC got carried away with it.
"It turned into a game of can-you-top-this?," says one. "They were showing everything from four different angles just to show the world that they could do it. You should show something if it means something, not just to show off. They overwhelmed the event with their coverage instead of documenting the event with their coverage."
Among TV sportsmen, there seems to be unanimous acclaim for Harry Coyle, who has, according to NBC, directed every World Series televised except the one that was on ABC in 1977. Coyle has been directing the World Series since the prehistoric television age of 1947, and one of his rivals says simply, "Harry is as good as anybody in the country."
But the Series became a victim of an epidemic TV syndrome overproduction. Every new wrinkle in technology can become a weapon in the pursuit of overproduction, and NBC used its 10 cameras (plus two portable mini-cama) and battery of videotape recorders to spruce up the show unmercifully. There were such daft producer's touches as sticking the faces of players' wives in a corner of the screen as the players themselves were introduced at the start of a game, a brainstorm whose relevance is unfathomable.
"I saw the problems right off the bat," says another network sports pro. "This is the first time NBC has had a negative reaction to their World Series coverage and I think I know where the body is buried. (Producer) Don Ohlmeyer is used to doing a lot of production on shows, but too many production inserts can screw up a good director. If they had left Harry Coyle alone, they'd have had a helluva World Series. But in overproducing, they hurt a director who's done baseball for 25 years. Overproduction is the worst thing you can do."
Most crucial of the other criticisms of NBC's coverage is probably the fact that its team of booth announcers - Joe Garagiola, Tony Kubek, and Tom Seaver - were uninformative and clumsy, and their baseball chatter was so tediously clinical that it tended to distance a viewer rather than involve him; the World Series, after all, attracts millions who all but ignore baseball the rest of the year.
Garagiola, most vacant and abrasive of the group, continually played the hick's trick of calling attention to the magnificence of the NBC shots (and some of them were magnificent) and on the last night even shouted praises to "our great director, Harry Coyle" because of his "great replays."
You can picture two kids discussing the game the next morning and saying, "The plays weren't much, but the replays were terrific."
The question of when to replay becomes considerably more complex in a case like that of Minnesota Viking Tommy Kramer, injured during a game with the Los Angeles Rams that was televised on CBS a week ago. Kramer was tackled and fell, but then a lingering camera showed his body quivering and shaking as he lay on the field.
Ace CBS director Sandy Grossman was calling the shots on that one and says he does not feel he dwelled too long on the player's misery.
"There is no policy on things like that," Grossman says. "It looked like Kramer had just been slammed to the ground, not loke anything serious. Once I realized what had happened, I tried to back off a little bit; I told the cameraman to pull back. This was not the kind of thing you wanted to sit back and watch. We certainly did not want a tight closeup of a guy possibly going into convulsions."
To have cut away completely from the injury would have been "avoiding the issue," Grossman says, and he notes that "the announcers in the booth handled it very well. They didn't pull a Cosell and try to say how this dramatized the problem of violence in sports, or any of that." But all the CBS affiliated stations had access to the shot of Kramer lying injured and some, like WDVM in Washington, showed it more than once on their newscasts. (One avid sports fan estimates that it is possible, counting all the replays on news and sports shows, to see a single football play repeated 27 times in one week end).
"We have no jurisdiction over our local stations," Grossman laments.
This brings up not only matters of taste in what is shown on television, whether during a football game or some other uncontrollable event, but also the way repeating a piece of action over and over denatures that image. Much was said during the heyday of protests over cop shows of the way television can densensitize us to violence by portraying in superficially. Repeating it over and over can have the same effect. As we are recurringly exposed to a single violent act, it loses impact with each replay, and if it is replayed often enough, a horrifying scene can come to appear comic.
It doesn't have to be violent, either, repeat anything often enough and the images are drained of meaning, and what you get is disco-vision, the video equivalent of a drugging refrain.
Schwartz, however, is now experimenting with more manipulative yet theoretically lwss numbing uses of replay. He has masterminded a radio campaign for Alex R-Seiph, a Chicago Democrat running against Sen. Charles Percy (R-Ill.). Schwartz simply has an announcer quote Sen. Percy on various issues over the years to reveal alleged inconsistencies in his positions."There's a whole spot on Percy being a chameleon," says Schwartz. "We say, 'Here's what he said here, and here's what he said there,' on taxes, inflation, whatever. This is all replay." A similar tactic was tried against California Governor Jerry Brown in primaries earlier this year.
Most of what we call The News on television is replay, Schwartz says - "instant history" - but he would like to see replay used in more creative and communicative ways. "You could use it in the broadest sense, rather than the narrowest. Suppose Carter speaks on a given question. You go through his last 10 speeches and pull out the things he said on the same subject, you string them together, and you show if he has been consistent, inconsistent, or what. That's speeded-up information; not making the tape run fast, but putting together a fast sequence of various things to reveal a pattern."
Instant replay will not go away. Instant replay will not go away. It is a new tool and a new toy, and the fact is, broadcasters find some use for every new image-altering device that technology drops into their laps; that's why on TV these days you see pictures exploded into lollipops or turned into playing cards or unfolding like a Chinese fan. Computer editing and various refinements have given telecasters a new arsenal of visual illusions and manipulations. Television exists according to the principle not of use but of overuse.
Where instant replay can cheat viewers is in further fractionalizing time and in further reducing events to capsules. Because NBC insisted on repeating nearly every play in the World Series, viewers missed all those nunances and aftershocks and grace notes that complete the game of baseball and even make it kind of beautiful, as few other team sports can be. Instant replay reduces things to their bare, cold essence - like one of those "Greatest Hits" record albums that boils all the classic symphonies down to their main themes and throws out the rest - so that a baseball game becomes merely a series of sequential modules with all the subtleties jettisoned. The resonance of victory and the romance of the game are condensed out.
Instant replay could be leading the way to a future of increasingly devalued experience and a style of television so callous as to make today's look like warm art. But here's the big whoop-de-doo Final Irony: We may achieve total replay capability just in time for an era in which there isn't anything genuinely worth replaying.