How much does TV commentary matter anyway?

Yesterday’s withering critique by Guardian sports journalist Geoff Lemon dispatched the oft-maligned Channel 9 cricket commentary team right over the pickets. No, make that over the Victor Richardson Gates – with eloquent, entertaining and exacting precision. It was one helluva read.

There is no doubt that whilst Nine’s production values and camera work standards remain first class, the quality of cricket commentary over the past five years has degenerated into a boys club that embraces a collection of the ‘matiest mates who ever mated’ (one of Geoff’s many zingers).

James Brayshaw, with the ‘emotional depth of a sock puppet during a button shortage’ was served a large slice of Lemon’s acerbic wit. The North Melbourne president also cops his fair share as an AFL commentator, of sorts. But in AFL world it is BT (Brian Taylor) that consumes the most terabytes of cyberspace angst. And I must say his style, mildly appealing on radio, has not translated to the box.

But as a long time, passionate consumer of both sports I do find the level of commentary on the commentary somewhat perplexing and tiresome. Rightly or wrongly, soccer fans get just as pernickety over their coverage too.  However in the grander scheme of poverty, social injustice, incurable disease, impending environmental doom, unspeakable crimes and war etc, some perspective per chance?

Maybe it’s a product of having grown up on the live product that puts a cap on my fury. Whether or not there’s a voice, informed, exasperating or otherwise, telling me what I can see and extrapolate with my own eyes and brain, infuriates me about as much as my bus running five minutes late. Nor do I have the slightest issue with seeking the sanctuary of the mute/volume button. Which I often do.

Sure I miss Richie’s dry wit and analysis of the game at hand. But to be brutally honest, whilst Tony Greig and Bill Lawry were half a class above the current crop, they harboured a capacity to be acutely annoying on a regular basis.

Likewise AFL commentators of yesteryear seem to enjoy the benefit of nostalgic reflection. When commentating Carlton matches, former player Ian ‘Robbo’ Robertson made Collingwood President Eddie McGuire sound like a neutral observer during his controversial stint on Channel 9. Peter Landy often appeared to be watching a different game, meanwhile Sandy Roberts provided great sound bites for ‘That Was The Season That Was’ but a comparable level of actual insight.   Drew Morphett?  Pls.

Put simply, my expectations have never been that high.

Anyone who has attempted the task of talking the talk on the teev says how difficult a gig it actually is. As with coaching, it’s not necessarily the best players who make the best experts who can translate their knowledge and ability in terms that mere mortals are willing and capable to comprehend. But finding those who’ve experienced the physical and mental pressure at the elite level that can string together lively and informative dialogue which enhances the broadcast – sans clichés, sans stating the bleeding obvious, sans nasally tone, sans bias, sans locker room in-jokes – they are few and far between.

A key point made by Lemon is that producers know their ratings include a captive market of enthusiasts that will endure a product that appeals more to what might be termed as the swinging voters.  It is simply the business model that administrators and marketers apply to running sport in the 21st century. It makes some people a lot of money but the rusted on purveyors the poorer for the experience.

The sad fact of the matter is that if the commentary does particularly drive you to distraction, it’s more than likely you have an innate appreciation of the sport that is not within the target spectrum the network is pitching to.

About Jeff Dowsing

Washed up former Inside Sport and Sunday Age Sport freelancer. Now just giving my stuff away to good homes. Not to worry, still have my health and day job. Published & unpublished works fester on my blog Write Line Fever.


  1. Well said JD. Complaining about something that is not going to change is a waste of time and energy. “Money doesn’t talk it swears” – BD.
    Anyone over 16 who needs commentary to tell them what is happening in a sporting contest lacks knowledge and imagination. The mute button is your friend.
    Springsteen or Roseanne Cash is more likely to commentate sport in our house than BT or Little Jimmy.
    Can’t be bothered with the Cricket World Cup. A first weekend full of blockbusters followed by weeks of mindless boredom is like the girl who wears suspenders and lace on the first date and granny knickers once you are going steady (do kids still say that?)
    If I want meandering, randomly meaningless made for TV melodrama I’ll watch the Bold and the Beautiful. Ridge Forrester’s love life has as much meaning as Michael Clarke’s hamstrings.

  2. Anyone who has issues with TV commentary has options.
    Just turn the TV sound down and listen to the ABC.
    Hysteria problem immediately solved.

  3. Chris Rees @4boat says

    I agree, I am a habitual muter and am gradually training my son to enjoy the 7 second delay.

    As Geoff Lemon himself says, mocking the Nine crew is not a new thing. While its good fun to see Brad McNamara hyperventilating about any criticism, you wonder why he doesn’t just laugh it off for the simple fact that people are still watching it in droves.

  4. I loved the Lemon article, and have sent it around to a large number of mates (real ones, not pretend ones like the Channel 9 commentary box ‘mates’), but I have one gripe with the article – it didn’t mention that 9 Has delayed the broadcast by so many seconds now that you can’t get the ABC radio commentary to coincide with the play not he TV – any solutions?

  5. If only there was an option to have the crowd and effects mics without the commentary.

    There is at least one way to synch radio and TV: . Some new digital radios have pause buttons which means you can effectively do the same thing.

  6. Hey Rabid Dog – as Peter B suggests, perhaps locate a few of your favourite Desert Island Discs and crank up the volume on them instead.

  7. The Nine boys are unlistenable, but ABC was just as aggravating this summer just gone. The truth is, we have a shocking lack of depth of good commentators here in Straya. I listened mainly to Fairfax during the Ashes and while they may prove tedious over time, they were a breath of fresh air this summer.

  8. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    You pose a valid question. I didn’t mind Landy and Morphett because you didn’t have to be Einstein to work out that they were ‘Fan Commentators’ and that they often expressed what the mug in the outer was thinking, right or wrong. Didn’t take to Ian Robertson until the 1990 GF when he captured the emotions of the Collingwood fans pretty well for a Carlton person.
    Cross-promotion has killed commentary. They’ll sell their souls for the ‘sell’ now.

  9. It’s funny you mention Robbo and the 1990 GF Phil – to me he sounded pained, like he was dying a little death inside but realising at the same time he had a job to do.

    As a ‘fan commentator’ how do you rate Bruce?

  10. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    agree about Robbo being pained until Barwick kicked ‘That Goal’ . After that I reckon he got caught up in the euphoria. Bruce has suffered from having Denis nearby. Too cruisey like a golden oldie radio station. Don Scott made him sound better than he really was in the early days.

  11. Hey Jeff

    Some valid pragmatism here, but I’d prefer to maintain the rage about lousy commentators. Good callers, for me, should be an intrinsic part of sports broadcasting and I can’t see myself ever being apathetic about their importance. A good example of how sport is enhanced by a great commentator is Tim Lane’s work on 3AW over the last few years. Tim would on occasion call the last quarter on his own on a saturday arvo when BT left the box early to make his evening commitments with Channel 7 and the outcomes were revelatory. Indeed, it was as though the clouds of a nuclear winter had cleared and glorious mid-summer sunshine had filled the airspace. And it wasn’t just that he was now unencumbered by BT’s troglodyte brand of buffoonery (though that was part of the relief!!); it was more having the canvas to himself. I found that he was building to something; as though, he was he was constructing a foundation, and then a frame and then walls and a roof. Each comment built on the last comment and the tension and drama benefited immeasurably. Had he had to cross to a co-commentator, I felt the construction would have collapsed like a house of cards (and in BT’s case, like a Bangladeshi 14 story sweat shop!). It was masterful, masterful stuff and Tim has never shone in this way before. I only hope others appreciated it so it may be able to again.

    PS: and on Tim being paired up with Brian Taylor, what on earth were 3AW thinking? For me, it was like pairing the jacket of a tailored suit with a pair of stubbies. Even worse was that Taylor went on to add a tradie crack to his King Gee’s!

  12. Thanks T Bone – I agree that Tim Lane is one of the best. Commentators like Lane do enhance the coverage no doubt.

    But your example relates to radio which is a whole other story. On the wireless the quality of commentary is EVERYTHING because the caller is your eyes whereas on TV, unless you need help with players names, the good ones a more a ‘nice-to-have’ rather than a necessity.

  13. Hey Jeff

    Yeah I was just trying to illustrate how good commentary enhances sport whatever the medium. On TV, if we ever get a real, real good one, I expect he or she will adopt the less than more approach. No-one has ever come close to that in my estimation.

  14. At least Ch 9’s visual coverage is v. good, regardless of what you think of the commentary.
    A bigger issue is the camera angles Ch 7 use for AFL. At times you have no idea where the ball, goals or on-coming tacklers are. You lose perspective. Talk about ruining ‘the brand’ (and I hate the corporate wankery attached to that phrase, but have to use it here). This is a far bigger issue than BT getting over excited (everone knows deep down he is a grumpy old bugger by the way).

  15. Agree 100% Damian – AFL is a tough game to cover but the too-clever obsession with switching cameras, coach reactions and close-ups of the play at best is bloody frustrating and discombobulating, at worst I feel like I’m getting motion sickness.

    And I guess that’s why the cricket coverage in general doesn’t irk me so much because the vision is always A1.

  16. Jeff,
    The Geoff Lemon article was enjoyable, and the links to Brad McNamara’s “unhinged” comments downright hysterical.
    The issue of sports commentary is vitally important, but it seems that the commercial tv stations are determined to continue to dumb it down.
    Wasn’t it you who wrote that BT et al were “disrespecting the game”?
    And I expressed similar sentiments last month:
    I complain not because I think it will change, but because it matters – and it drives me nuts.

  17. I don’t recall saying that Smokie – but it is a fair comment to make. Though the reality is the networks are in the business of generating ratings which leads to advertising revenue. If ‘wowee’ entertainment is what they think attracts the greater numbers then that’s what they’ll run with.

    BT is really another version of Rex Hunt – and he used to drive plenty of fans nuts too. Tbh Bruce aggravates me more than BT but like I wrote, I tend to just turn down the volume and take a leaf from Taylor Swift (shake it off). If anything it’s the in between quarters & pre/post match crap talking that has me flicking stations.

    Realist or defeatist, as someone who cannot justify $50 a month to watch a few games of footy on Foxtel (and doesn’t want to feel obligated to watch more TV), I’m just grateful there’s still more than enough footy on FTA to satisfy my needs.

    Nothing beats actually going to the game in my book.

  18. John Butler says

    JD, “business model” really sums it up.

    But I wonder if sports administrators have a clear understanding of their “product’s” long term interests. It’s the little things that add up over time, and it’s the little things that can get you in the end. Once you get in the habit of treating your sport like just another consumable entertainment, the laws of the market can kick in with unintended consequences.

    I’m thinking of the music business as a prime example.

  19. Good point JB – though sports tend to be more interested in flogging the TV rights off to the highest bidder. Once it’s sold, how much say do they have in how the game is presented/commentated? And do the executives who get a big fat bonus based on what said rights were sold for really care?

  20. Luke Reynolds says

    Good article Jeff. We tend to look at the past with rose coloured glasses. I thought the Channel 7 commentators in the 80’s/90’s were bad. Robbo especially. They’re no better now. But there’s always an option. Radio or mute. Or put up with it. But as you said, nothing beats going to the game. Whatever game it is.

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