Last month, TNT introduced a new, horrifying feature on its NBA broadcasts: a digital shot clock that’s superimposed onto the floor just behind the foul line. The graphic—an encircled all-white timer that turns red when the clock ticks below five—is like the yellow first-down line in football in that it exists only on our TV screens. Unlike the yellow first-down line, however, TNT’s digital shot clock is completely unnecessary. Consider that the network’s digital scoreboard also displays a shot clock and that the actual shot clock behind the backboard is often in a frame.
This new graphic is the most blatant example yet of screen pollution in sports broadcasting. I want to make it clear that I’m not opposed to on-screen graphics. The 1st & 10 marker was a hugely significant, clarifying innovation. The always-on scoreboard bug, which Fox debuted 25 years ago, provides viewers with all the information they need regardless of when they tune in. The strike zone box—a recent addition to most Major League Baseball telecasts—makes it clearer than ever whether a close pitch was a strike or a ball. Pro-tracer technology, which has become a staple of golf broadcasts, allows viewers to track the ball through the sky. Even the glowing hockey puck, which Fox introduced in 1996, was a noble attempt to improve the sport for casual viewers—even if many die-hard fans despised it. (The glowing puck was last seen in 1998.)
Those graphics work, at least in concept, because they address the logistical flaws of watching sports on TV. But not all graphics have a self-evident purpose. Rather, some doodads are just on-screen crap, misguided attempts to sate our increasingly uncommitted attention spans. For example, NBC’s Sunday Night Football now digitally darkens the field on third downs to represent the yardage a team needs to gain. The Green Zone, as NBC has dubbed it, is a solution to a problem that never existed. It’s there for the sake of being there, to distinguish NBC’s games from those televised by its competitors.
At least we can be thankful that the Green Zone hasn’t caught on elsewhere. That cannot be said for the Arrow. Most college and professional football games now feature a gigantic down-and-distance arrow that points in the direction that the team with the ball is driving. The arrow, which varies depending on which channel it’s on, is so ubiquitous in modern football telecasts that it’s easy to forget how silly it is. Not only does it provide no new information—all scoreboards tell us the down and distance—it’s also the size of a station wagon. The most prominent thing you see on a football field each week isn’t a player or a team or the ball or the crowd. It’s this massive, pointless arrow that takes up about 10 percent of the screen.
And then there are the scoreboards. Once upon a time, they were small and tucked away in the corner, cluing in viewers to important information without distracting from the action. These days, too many scoreboards are black holes that threaten to swallow everything in their path.
The biggest offender here is ESPN, which deploys an NBA scoreboard so grotesquely large and wasteful that whoever designed it should be sent to The Hague. Check out the size of this monstrosity, which features a bulbous font, giant team logos, and a black bar that says nothing but “NBA FRIDAY”—I suppose for people who both forget what sport they’re watching and what day it is.
For comparison’s sake, look at the digital scoreboard from the same Lakers-Jazz game as seen on the local broadcaster Spectrum SportsNet.
That right there is a good scoreboard! It provides exactly as much information as ESPN’s, and it does it without obscuring a healthy chunk of the screen. As you see below, ESPN’s scoreboard is such a leviathan that you can practically fit the Spectrum scoreboard inside it three times.
The best on-screen scoreboards resemble the Spectrum one: legible, but small and unobtrusive. They’re there if you need them and ignorable if you’d rather (gasp) focus on the players. By contrast, huge scoreboards like ESPN’s are obtrusive eyesores. Whether you need them or not, they draw your eyes and attention away from the actual sport.
That brings me back to TNT’s digital shot clock, which thus far has gotten mixed to negative reviews from sports writers like Rodger Sherman and Zach Lowe. Like ESPN’s scoreboard, it commits the cardinal sin of taking up an excessive amount of screen space while providing no additional information. Even worse, it isn’t confined to the bottom of the screen, where you can occasionally overlook it. It’s situated in the middle of the floor, in the middle of the action, actively competing for our attention. It’s also constantly ticking down—and eventually changing color—placing a bright moving image alongside the athletes we are trying to focus on.
In no other televised medium would such a ridiculous, conspicuous graphic be tolerated. Imagine going to see the new Star Wars movie and seeing, in the center of the screen, a big, animated CGI circle that said, “YOU ARE WATCHING STAR WARS.” Well, TNT’s digital shot clock is exactly as essential as that.
This should infuriate us! There’s a natural, cinematic beauty to sports, a beauty that gets sullied by all these silly graphics. This isn’t just an aesthetic complaint. Broadcasters like TNT are insulting their viewers, who should be trusted to understand that there’s already one digital shot clock on the screen. Just like viewers don’t need the Green Zone, or a shaded-in red zone, or a 3-point line that changes colors whenever someone shoots behind it, or even a humongous arrow that shows what the down and distance is.
Therein lies the threat of the digital shot clock, which has a chance to become basketball’s first prolonged foray into frivolous superimposed graphics. If fans don’t demand that TNT stop wasting our time and attention with this distracting gimmick, it could expand to other networks. ESPN—which has labored to make its scoreboard as enormous as possible—might leap at the opportunity to stick an utterly useless shot clock in the middle of the court. (The channel has already done it once, during college basketball games in 2012.) And if it spreads to other networks, it then becomes a trend—and then suddenly this totally unneeded graphic is a staple of all college and professional basketball games, just like the arrow is on football games. The digital shot clock could easily go from something you see once a week to something you see in every basketball game you’ll ever watch for the rest of your life.
Which is why it’s important to complain about this while we still have the chance. If viewers make enough of a stink—as hockey fans once did—the on-court shot clock could go the way of the glowing puck. But if this Rubicon is crossed, if sports fans accept the digital shot clock as a permanent sports institution, I can only imagine what horrible, schlocky “enhancements” will follow. Perhaps soccer matches will soon feature tweets projected onto the pitch, right under the players’ feet. Maybe basketball broadcasters will fill in the court with commercials so that the players step over Flo from Progressive while they’re boxing out for rebounds. If you don’t want that to happen, if you’re disturbed at the prospect of the hardwood one day looking like the billboards in Minority Report, let TNT know what you think about its digital abomination.
The clock is ticking.