In the midst of living through one demarcatory line between past and present, I examine the complications onset by another – the SDTV/HDTV transition.
Highlighted by Outside Circumstances is the name I’m giving to a series of pieces written about aspects of life that the isolation onset by the Coronavirus pandemic brought to the forefront.
Immediately after the news rolled in through the days of March 11th and 12th, 2020, sports leagues had a dilemma. When every major sports league – the NBA, NHL, MLB, MLS, and basically all other sports leagues save for that of professional wrestling – announced either postponement or cancellation of the rest of the season, months of future programming was jeopardized. And not just the live-game broadcasts were thrown into limbo, no, basically everything else on the major sports networks, from the ESPNs and FS1s to the CBSSNs and GOLTVs to the NFL Networks and MLB Networks, ran on an ecosystem of live sports being available for endless discussion and general yelling.
During times like this, I am reminded of my Senior year of high school, when our Time Warner Cable subscription finally got the NFL Network and I would spend hours watching it when they were playing classic NFL Films documentaries on the nights that they aired those. In my memory, though, what NFL Network actually aired most days and nights was “NFL Total Access”, a 2-hour long block of inane discussion on general NFL topics of the day. It felt boring to me even back then, even during the NFL season when there were actual games to watch and focus on, it always felt like a whole lot of talking without saying anything of substance. And I cannot imagine what it’s like there on NFL Total Access right now, judging by the fact that the only news happening currently is that a few scant quarterbacks don’t know where they’ll be playing next year, and a draft is coming up in three weeks. I do not envy that position, and if I were in charge of programming right now, I think the smart thing to do would be to lean in hard on the replays and the classic documentaries.
This was the case with the MLB Network last week, which played episodes of “MLB’s 20 Greatest Games”, a series wherein Bob Costas, Tom Verducci and a rotating cast of ex-players, managers, and analysts give commentary over highlights from each game. They then followed those episodes with the full broadcast of the game covered in the episode. In the particular case that spawned this post, they showed the 2009 one-game playoff to decide the American League Central title between the Detroit Tigers and Minnesota Twins.
This game fascinated me. This happened during probably the most significant period of baseball apathy in my life, which started sometime around 2006 and ended in about 2013. In 2004, the Royals tore off eight straight seasons finishing either fourth or fifth in the AL Central, despite there being no singular dynastic team that dominated the division during the time (every other team won at least a single division championship, save for KC). I was so disillusioned with baseball at this point, and with sports in general, that there was basically no way that this game was on my radar.
There was significant transition happening in sports during this period – the transition from 480p, Standard Definition television at a 4:3 aspect ratio to a cable standard of 720p broadcasts at a 16:9 aspect ratio. It’s kind of an ignored aspect of the change in sports broadcasting over the past ~15 years, but there’s a cutoff point between the modern and the past, which happened in about 2009, when every major television network made the change from the 4:3 standard they’d used since the beginning of the medium. As a result, there’s a natural shift in one’s cognition of an era, I think. Anything before the shift to 720p is old, everything since the shift is new, relatively speaking. That was a pretty easy line to hold for a long while, but looking at it now, it’s been over ten years since the transition and as we move further and further away from the early days of HD sports, more and more dissonance is sneaking in, complicating the snap-judgment that any sports broadcast in widescreen is something recent.
The 2009 AL Central tiebreaker game is interesting in this regard for another reason, that being its venue. This game turned out to be the second-to-last Twins game ever played in the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, as the Twins would move to their current home of Target Field for the 2010 season. The Metrodome was demolished in 2014, with the new US Bank Stadium taking its place for the 2016 football season. And it’s strange, definitely, to see the baseball layout of the Metrodome sneaking in under the wire and having at least one classic game available in 720p HD. I am forever going to associate seeing baseball in the Metrodome in 4:3 through highlights of the 1987 World Series win over the last great eighties Cardinals team, or the great 1991 World Series against the proto-dynastic Braves, or their 2002 upset of the record-setting Oakland Athletics in the ALDS. The Metrodome slipped in one last great game under the wire in 2009.
I get a sense that we’re in a weird spot with regards to the way we see the world, like we’re in a transitory historical period that’s going to be used for years to come as a cutoff point. People will, in the future, discuss events in terms of pre-Corona and post-Corona. I’ve always used sports as a method of me dividing up timelines through history. I’m curious if, in 2020, we’ll see the same sort of line of demarcation between the past and future drawn. If the NBA, NHL, and MLS seasons are fully cancelled for the rest of the year, will we be discussing the great performances that happened before things stopped in the same sort of sense?
I think we’ll probably look back at College Basketball performances this season in the same sense. We’re forever going to be stuck not knowing what Obi Toppin, Udoka Azubuike, and Sabrina Ionescu’s last hurrahs in the NCAA Tournament would’ve looked like. The grayed-out line on so many Wikipedia lists stating that part or all of a sports season in 2020 was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic is going to be there forever.
I don’t know if we’ll have a demarcation between eras as obvious as the shift in television broadcast definition, but that line is going to be there. It’s going to become ubiquitous in the future years. Broadcasts of games before 2020 won’t have mentions of shortened seasons, unusual playoff formats, and postseason tournaments that didn’t happen, but I’m sure you’ll hear about it from color commentators off-handedly in the future. What form that will take is unknown, but it’s going to happen:
Maybe we talk of the 2020 Milwaukee Bucks and 2020 Boston Bruins the way that we talk about the 1994 Montreal Expos, where a short championship window was prematurely closed due to outside circumstances. Maybe we talk about 2020 as the last great LeBron James season. Maybe we see a young star like Pete Alonzo have a statistically fantastic performance during an eighty-one game MLB season, and we discuss what could’ve been during a full Summer of 2020 the same way we talk about Tony Gwynn and Ken Griffey Jr. in 1994.
Much in the same way that my brain instantly assumes a 4:3 aspect ratio is old and a 16:9 aspect ratio is new, I cannot imagine watching a sporting event in the future and not being reminded in some form about the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020. That will be complicated in the future just as well, I’m sure.