No matter the broadcast medium, a play-by-play person’s job description is always the same: tell the story of the game. However, the manner in which that task is carried out differs greatly when comparing broadcasts with and without visual aids.
For broadcasters, many of their first events are radio or Internet broadcasts that do not have visual aids. As a result, the primary skills honed early in many broadcaster’s careers are related to play and scene description. There is a large emphasis on painting a clear and vivid picture with words when there is no visual aid. It is critical to present the listener with as much information about the given event, location and play sequence, so that when it is all said and done, the audience has an image ingrained in their mind of what has transpired in an event that they cannot view themselves. The broadcaster acts as the eyes and ears of the audience, and the primary focus is to relay critical information and description to the audience. While these skills are critical to develop for a broadcaster, they can be detrimental when transitioning to television or internet broadcasts that do contain a visual aid.
Kevin Harlan, of NBA on TNT and “No Regard for Human Life” fame, once said he prepares 10 times as much material for a television broadcast as he does for a radio broadcast. Harlan says when he has the visual aid of television, there is less description required of him and more opportunity to provide back story. The audience can see the play-by-play with their own eyes. They can also hear the accompanying ambient noise from the players and crowd and, frankly, could watch the game without any commentary (although it is not suggested) and still have a pretty good idea as to what is going on. Especially with the aid of score and time graphics, the play-by-play broadcaster’s approach to the game must be different from when he or she is broadcasting on the radio.
One of the hardest transitions to visual broadcasting is learning to let the video speak for itself. A broadcaster does not have to describe every action and detail of the play on the floor or field. In fact, while going the extra mile on a radio broadcast to describe a scene or play is an effective tool for a broadcaster, it can be distracting and even annoying on a television broadcast. It is hard to discipline one’s self, and resist the urge to say everything that comes to mind, but when a broadcaster has the aid of video and graphic production, less can sometimes be more. Adding commentary on SIGNIFICANT plays allows the commentary to almost feel more important. By speaking less about the action transpiring on the floor, it also allows for that extra preparation to shine through. There is more opportunity to drop in interesting stats or facts, even DURING the play, that otherwise cannot be delivered on the radio because there is such a focus on describing the action. While initially it may be difficult disciplining yourself and resisting the urge to talk about every single detail of every single play, I think you will find that the quality of your commentary will be enhanced by picking the spots in which you comment on the action and find yourself with more opportunity to enhance the back story to the game.
Finally, I want to finish with a video. In my opinion, there are few broadcasters on the national level right now better than Ian Eagle. Agree or disagree, I think you will find the video below to be incredibly entertaining. More importantly, however, it is an example of how a broadcaster can practice his or her craft. The most important thing for young broadcasters is to get live-game repetitions. It is the most effective way to improve. However, live-game repetitions are hard to come by for a variety of reasons. That does not mean that your broadcast skills are destined to deteriorate through atrophy. When I was younger, I would often mute the television and broadcast the game to myself. If I were playing a video game, I’d do the same. I think the video below shows a method that is even more effective. In the video, you’ll see Ian broadcast a fake game. He simply sits in front of a group of aspiring broadcasters, creates a scene and then goes off on his own and pretends to broadcast the game. It forces him to use creative and descriptive language. It is also an excellent tool to allow broadcasters to become comfortable with their voice. If you can sit in a room and broadcast a game that does not exist, then it should only get easier from there.