The Illusion Of Immediacy

THE young woman was performing ``soft aerobics'' on a Puerto Rico beach, smiling through it all, keeping her pace just short of losing her breath, maintaining an encouraging patter for the thousands of viewers watching on cable sets. It was a little before noon. I continued flipping through the channels for what I was after. Awaking in the middle of the night some days later, I arose to check the cable newswire. There was the young woman, still aerobicking away in Puerto Rico, apparently locked in the labyrinth of the television system, condemned to a purgatory of motion. I have seen her twice. She is eight inches tall.

CBS has paid almost $4 billion to host the NCAA college basketball playoffs through 1997. Over the past decade ESPN, the cable channel, developed this post-season tournament into the best competition of the entire sports calendar. NBC showed the weekend games, but ESPN showed games from everywhere, cutting from one to another as the teams advanced from the regionals to the Final Four.

This year's tournament has been terrific. The emotional intensity and the quality and evenness of talent across the original 64 teams have been remarkable. The coaches - Jim Calhoun of UConn, Mike Krzyzewski of Duke, Clem Haskins of Minnesota - were exemplary in preparing their players for defense, attack, and control. The semifinals this Saturday in Denver - Duke vs. Arkansas, University of Nevada at Las Vegas vs. Georgia Tech - and the final Monday will end a compelling season.

But how boring is CBS's coverage. Every few minutes the network generates a new clich'e - ``If you live by the buzzer-beater you die by the buzzer-beater.'' It played for the heartstrings of tragedy with the on-court death of Loyola Marymount star Hank Gathers. Better the less-packaged amateur enthusiasm of ESPN. It will be missed.

The fan's show has been sold. You may think you are watching basketball, the exchange of an orange ball between opposing teams. But from another perspective the medium of exchange is really some $4 billion worth of sneakers and beer.

Hundred-thousand-dollar equipment-endorsement contracts for coaches. Nothing allowed for the players - for a few professional contracts; for the rest, just the replays, mental and video, of their triumphs and defeats.

When following tournaments, some of us at times must turn off the sound. The crowd's partisanship taps our energy in our kitchens or studies, much as the cable connection drains our checking account with its monthly fee. We feel a relief when the final buzzer sounds unbeaten. A mental account, a preoccupation, can be closed.

The illusion of immediacy may take up an inordinate amount of the contemporary world's attention through television, but it is sustained in other media as well. The new film version of ``Henry V'' playing locally, for instance, giving us Kenneth Branagh for the '90s in place of Laurence Olivier of the `50s, is still timeless Shakespeare.

In ``War and Peace'' we believe we reread history.

One can say that sports coverage creates the sports industry as an investment and advertising medium. The medium is the merchandise. Newspapers, magazines, find sports a circulation and hence a profit center.

Basketball players are not nine inches tall, as they appear on my screen. At the Hartford Civic Center this season I saw the UConn Huskies defeat the Syracuse Orangemen: The players were nearer seven feet tall. Their quickness along the length of the floor was far more impressive than is evident in their darting the few inches across the TV screen. The crowd was ruder, more real than the cameo shots could let you believe. The noise pummeled your body. The players rode with, or fought against, the emotional surges of the crowd.

The thing itself differs from the video version.

One seat in the stands versus the multicamera, replay game - which may be simultaneously displayed on a massive overhead screen for those whose sense of reality needs reinforcement.

Nonetheless, I will be watching this weekend.

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