For TV Junkies, World News Is a Spectator Sport

A week of live broadcasts starts with the green lawns of Wimbledon and ends with tanks on the lawn of the Turkish parliament. Time for a reality check.

Spectators watch Andy Murray at Wimbeldon.
Justin Tallis, Reuters

Compared to so many weeks past, my TV viewing week started auspiciously. On a sunny Sunday, lying comfortably in bed with one of my grandsons, Yair – all 8.5 years of him – we were planning some “quality time” participating in our favorite kind of sport: the spectators’ one.

First, some tennis and the men’s final at Wimbledon, where Scotsman Andy Murray found a winning way to return Canadian-Serbian Milos Raonic’s speed-of-light serves. Then some leisurely cycling at the Tour de France, with a bunch of male butts – tights on bikes – chasing each other, and serving as an excuse to regale viewers with some French pastoral landscapes. Finally, later at night, the European Championship final, with the Portuguese and French soccer players boring themselves, and us, silly, chasing each other and a ball, trying to disprove the very definition of the game: “A soccer game lasts for 90 minutes, and at the end the Germans win.” It had lasted more than two hours, and ended with the Portuguese winning 1-0 and their superstar Ronaldo on the sideline, crying, in a very modern, manly fashion (happy, not soppy).

At one point, when nothing was happening on-screen, I looked at Yair, next to me, and saw that he was holding the sixth volume of “Harry Potter” in his lap and reading it while checking the screen out of the corner of his eye. I, meanwhile, was with my trusty tablet, pursuing some line of inquiry online while simultaneously – I’m famous for my multitasking disability – being vaguely aware that something was going on there, on the screen.

In my view, this is the chief charm of a live sports broadcast: It’s happening somewhere in the “real” world, in “real time,” to be seen and heard by all those who tune in. At the same time, though, it’s not “real,” since it’s a game that’s played according to a set of rules followed by all, within a set time limit, with the result having some “real” consequences (a championship, a trophy, a cup). But it’s never a life-or-death matter. What’s more pertinent here is that you – that is, Yair and me – are alerted that something is happening on the playing field by the sound, just in time to stop whatever you’re doing, look at the screen and see the “instant replay,” not missing a thing.

On Wednesday, it looked like things were just getting better and better for my TV viewing. Imagine tuning into a live broadcast from parliament, gearing oneself up for the usual haggling, screaming and jostling for the attention of the speaker and cameras that one gets on Channel 33 of Israeli TV (on any provider), which streams the action live from the Israeli “House of Commons” – with its lawmakers taking the “common” adjective in the most literal sense of the word. But then, imagine it being a live broadcast from “the Mother of Parliaments” – the actual House of Commons, with the Rt. Hon. David Cameron holding his very last Prime Minister’s Questions.

Still frame taken from video shows Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan speaking via a Facetime video connection to address the nation during an attempted coup, in Marmais, Turkey, on July 16, 2016.
Reuters

In a way, this was also a game: The rules of engagement were very clear, the time frame pretty tight (30 minutes, 12-12:30 P.M. every Wednesday whenever Parliament is in session), and the outcome immaterial, in its own way. Watch and marvel at the skill, style and mastery of delivery with which the game is being played, most of its comments improvised on the spot and uttered, more often than not, with the specific aim of “bringing the house down” with a “hear, hear” or cracking it up with laughter.

Cameron was roundly complimented by members of his party and the opposition for the manner in which he conducted these sessions all through his tenure – with wit, command of details, repartee and courtesy. And indeed, in this last session, the old-style democracy was at its best, brightest and wittiest, running slightly overtime (38 minutes), and garnering some very justified and prolonged applause for the departing PM.

Many of Cameron’s punch lines on his final PMQs (the 195th, by his reckoning) made the news, but what caught my attention was an anecdote he recounted about a walk he’d taken in New York once with then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Everyone on the NY streets was greeting the mayor and no one had recognized him, Cameron told the right honorable members, until one of the passersby looked at him and said, “Ah, Cameron, love your show!”

Grim viewing

The pleasant memory of that show carried me through to late Thursday evening, when matters in the “real” world started to get “out of joint” for real, in France again – and in Nice, of all places, a town that is very much on our tongues, albeit mostly unconsciously, every time we order a niçoise salad.

The TV newscast about the truck that ploughed through the rejoicing crowd on Bastille Day was grim viewing. One particular clip of the white truck passing through the screen from right to left, with shots heard in the background, was shown again and again, with reporters babbling about everything and anything bar the facts as to “why” it had happened (ISIS, of course, appropriated it post-factum) and all being generally helpless, puzzled and ever-so-slightly frightened.

English-reading viewers must have been struck by the incongruity of the banner on their screens stating “Breaking News: Nice terror attack,” as if the “nicety” or lack thereof matters to the terrorists, their victims or TV viewers.

A day later, I was still pondering the “cognitive dissonance” of the carnage in Nice and trying to recuperate from the despair of it all, when it turned out – on my Facebook newsfeed first, followed by a TV newscast, which again went into open-ended newscast mode – that a coup was underway in Turkey, bringing matters even closer to home. It looked like it was time itself, not the world, that was getting out of joint: From 120 minutes of soccer, through 30 minutes of PMQs, less than 24 hours after the terror attack in Nice had commanded the world’s attention, to the attempt of some in the Turkish army to grab the reins of power.

It’s much too early to say whether the idea of Turkish democracy – presumably being undermined by its autocratic leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan – could or should have been defended by such an antidemocratic act as a military coup. But it’s not too early to admit that the coup, and the way it was conducted and reported, has overthrown the undisputed – until recently – status and authority of the TV newscast as the provider of news and analysis to the “common viewer.”

The “rebels” stormed the TV station first, in order to get hold of “the media” and thus captivate the minds of the beholders and control the flow of information. It soon turned out that they’re behind the times, or rather, long past their sell-by-date: Turks from all walks of life started to flood the social networks with live streaming of events from that boiling Turkish political bath. Erdogan himself used FaceTime on his smartphone to conduct an interview with the news anchor in a TV studio, appealing to his countrymen to get out onto the streets, far from their TV sets but with their streaming weapons ever ready, and to fight for democracy (in their view) and his staying in power (in his).

All in all, it seems I have run the whole gamut of options that live TV broadcasting can offer, and ended with the clear realization that we’ll be able to manage without it very well soon. As long as I’m not expected to give up my addiction cold turkey.