Write Comment January 22nd, 2015 Cultural Trends · journalism · Marketing · News Response
The great television impresario Tony Verna passed away this month from leukemia at age 81 in Palm Desert, Calif., after producing many of the biggest televised events in American history.
Verna’s five decades in the TV business included directing five Super Bowls, two Olympic Games, 12 Kentucky Derbies, the famed Live Aid global concert in 1985, Pope John Paul’s TV special, and numerous NBA Championships and Stanley Cup Finals.
Despite these landmark achievements, history will remember Verna as the inventor of TV’s instant replay. By launching this rather innocuous advance, Tony Verna arguably helped change the face of American culture forever.
Verna was a young CBS sports producer assigned to cover the annual Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia on Dec. 7, 1963. He had developed a new production trick that he wanted to try out on viewers during the big rivalry, which featured star quarterback Roger Staubach playing for Navy.
Verna’s breakthrough technology initially ran into technical problems. When he tried airing replays several times in the game’s first half, the designated tape would only show prior clips from “I Love Lucy” or soap commercials. Finally, Verna was able to make the tape loop work correctly, and our world has never been the same since.
Sadly, no video record of that special game exists today. Verna’s broadcast showed the world’s first instant replay of Army quarterback Rollie Stichweh crossing into the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. Fans were shocked when they saw his teammates celebrating, only to watch Stichweh make the exact same play just moments later.
Phone lines quickly lit up at the local CBS stations. Confused viewers were trying to understand what had just happened. Announcer Lindsey Nelson had to explain that Army had not scored a second touchdown. Rather, home viewers had just witnessed a historic “immediate video replay” of the TD, as it was called.
“This is not live,” Nelson exclaimed. “Ladies and gentlemen, Army did not score again!”
Granted, sports fans should be forever grateful for the ability to analyze important plays in excruciating detail, watching the action loop over and over again in super slow-motion. But, in many ways, instant replays introduced an era of technical cynicism to our sports coverage, and to U.S. culture more broadly.
First, consider the meaning of the term itself: instant replay. “Instant” implies an urge for instant gratification, of knowing the precise outcome right away. “Replay” implies the ability to do things over, to witness events repeatedly and relive critical moments again and again.
As Verna’s invention started taking hold in society, America endured the Civil Rights Movement, several brutal political assassinations, the Vietnam War, and the Watergate scandal which culminated in the only resignation of a U.S. president – by Richard Nixon, a diehard football fan no less. This was the dawn of the modern era when America arguably lost its innocence, and the instant replay was just one small thread woven into this much larger national tapestry.
Of course, the instant replay has greatly improved our sense of fair play by reversing bad referee calls, and exposing players who actually stepped out of bounds. On the other hand, the replay technology has prompted untold delays for sports fans while officials “go to the replay booth to check the tape.”
The replay has become so ingrained that we reflexively accept this slowdown of action, which in turn fuels doubts about every single call made on the field, depending on which team the fans are rooting for. Nobody believes in the umps or refs anymore, because all humans are fallible. In some very real sense, the instant replay has reinforced our faith in technology at the expense of human trust.
Now replay cameras crowd our baseball outfields to show when any hit lands foul, and they surround our basketball courts to show who got fouled. Over time, our expanding doubts and fears have introduced replay cameras into every stadium, along with every shopping center, office, bank, store, housing complex and street corner in the United States.
In the wake of recent violent police altercations, virtually everything we do now gets filmed for replay, even down to police officers carrying cameras on their helmets to capture footage of all public interactions. If we can’t trust our refs, how can we possibly trust our cops armed with guns? And so it goes.
In short, we have become an instant replay society so consumed by our capacity to double-check errors that we have forsaken the ability to quickly forgive mistakes and move on. It’s much more fun to fixate on the instant replays and scream at the on-screen blunders in high-definition over and over again. Come to think of it, that’s probably appropriate because it’s what Tony Verna would have wanted all along.