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July 31, 2005

Instant Replay

I've been thinking about the concept and technology of instant replay this afternoon. Because of my interest in media and time, I've thought about replay in passing from time to time, but while I was reading an essay about video this morning, I began thinking about how instant replay might represent a fairly significant shift in television's temporal flows. Most of the sources I've encountered identify ABC's Wide World of Sports ("the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat") broadcast of the 1963 Army-Navy fooball game as the original use of instant replay, at least as we understand it from sports broadcasts. The technology was invented by Jim Wheeler, who has also been very active in video preservation efforts. The concept apparently gained some degree of cultural awareness fairly quickly. By 1967, Green Bay Packers offensive lineman Jerry Kramer titled his diary of the Packers' Super Bowl season, Instant Replay.

But digging around the web, I noticed that the technology had other early uses, including some military applications (surprise!), allowing the Navy to add stop-action to jets' on-board cameras in order to avoid bumpy landings (Dennis Dodd's CBS Sportsline story implies that instant replay wasn't used for sporting events until 1964). Dodd speculates that instant replay has changed our viewing habits forever, and on the level of sports scrutiny, our ability to view and review any and every possible play, where every play is now a potential highlight, he's clearly right.

But, on another level, instant replay has a secondary significance that has, perhaps, been overshadowed by the Sports-Centrification of American life ("He...could...go...all...the...way!"). Specifically instant replay, as a concept, invokes what Wolfgang Ernst describes as "that oxymoronic relation between presence and its storage." Ernst pushse the boundaries of what is normally called instant replay, dating it back to the CBS Eevening News broadcast on November 30, 1956, in which, for the first time, a network news program was recorded on videotape for rebroadcast on the west coast.

The archivability of television is now widely accepted of course, whether via videotape, DVD collections of favorite shows, or TiVo (or even through the re-run). But the narrower definition of instant replay seems significant precisely because the manipulation of the temporality (replay/slow motion) of the image becomes the subject of the shot, rather than the technological possibility represented in the news broadcast Ernst describes. It also inaugurates the (illusory?) control over time that had more commonly been associated with the cinema. Ernst even argues, following Samuel Weber, that TV watchers can no longer tell whether a broadcast is "live," unless it is "interactive digital TV," allowing the viewer to participate in the narrative (voting contestants off the show, perhaps), a claim that I'm not quite willing to accept (in fact, some of ESPN's humor derives from our conscious recogniion of the play between live and "pre-recorded" images).

But there are aspects of Ernst's argument about instant replay that I find frustrating, particularly the way that he unpacks the concept of "liveness," which he associates with "amnesia." Ernst argues that "early TV, like radio, is characterized by its lack of storage abilities -- it shows a tendency to amnesia" (632). He later reiterates this perception of televisual amnesia, arguing that "we are made oblivious to the amnesia of TV in the enduring flow of transmission." (633). I don't doubt that countless early TV shows/episodes are "lost," in the sense that no physical recording exists. But the equation of "liveness" with "amnesia" seems imprecise, in part because the programs themselves, particulalry using repetition (of characters, mise-en-scene, or plot elements) to mitigate against amnesia in order to ensure that audiences would be motivated to return, but even the serialization associated with soap operas would seem to work against this notion of amnesia.

Posted by chuck at July 31, 2005 11:20 PM

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