Streaming the Super Bowl

The NFL’s 2013 Super Bowl marked the second time that American football’s final game, and the most consistently popular television spectacle in terms of viewer ratings, was streamed live over the Internet. Expanding on the multiple camera angles and statistical insights offered by NBC the previous year, CBS allowed users to switch between more camera angles, to pause and rewind footage from the broadcast, to follow a “curated Twitter stream featuring commentary from CBS personalities and Q&As with CBSSports.com experts,” and to select and play the ever popular advertisements at any time (Langford). These online components indicate a trend toward providing a more valuable and singular online streaming experience that could eventually challenge the television broadcast’s hegemony.

urlThe most pronounced feature distinguishing the possibilities of online transmission of the Super Bowl is the ability of the viewer to control his or her viewing experience. Whereas the television version dictates to the viewer what warrants attention, the online stream, with its handful of separate feeds and pause and rewind controls, encourages an active user to change cameras and analyze the footage as he or she sees fit. Viewers can develop a more critical, engaged, and thorough understanding of how the technological apparatus transmitting the content is positioned within the physical space of the live event, identify the presence of previously invisible actors and environmental elements, and more accurately interpret what exactly is happening at the site of the broadcast, such as the development of a football play illuminated by a quarterback’s perspective camera angle.

Networks give the illusion of the online feeds presenting a “rawer” or less mediated image, but the reality is that they are just as filtered and predetermined as their broadcast counterparts. The cameras are still well under control, and, should they need to be, they could be cut off or redirected in an instant. The motivation for maintaining this level of control was summed up by the president of CBS Interactive, Jim Lanzone, who claimed the “goal was to create an environment that would serve as the perfect complement to CBS Sports’ coverage of the game” (“CBS: Record”). The technology may offer expanded viewing possibilities, but the online stream remains secondary and supplemental to the main broadcast.

Nonetheless, the digital stream creates the opportunity to transfer the agency typically attributed to the live viewer (who experiences the “real” event) to the online viewer, simultaneously allowing him or her to manipulate the visual and audio feeds and highlighting the relatively narrow perception of the live viewer who is limited to a single (although moveable) viewpoint that cannot match the visual and auditory fidelity and detail of the content broadcast to the home viewer. CBS’s decision to incorporate a “’subservient chicken camera angle,’ where a roving cameraman…takes cues from viewers and heads to whatever part of the field he’s told to go,” is just one of many possible ways to enhance further the interactive power of the online streamer (Kafka).

The realization of that potential is contingent upon the evolution of the online stream from an augmentative feature subjugated to the same totalizing control as the main broadcast to a dynamic, separate commodity optimized for the digital medium and comprised of a diverse set of content and televisual perspectives which free the audience to direct their own viewing experiences. However, shifting the broadcaster’s control one level higher, to the determination of certain visual and auditory feeds available to access rather than the transmission of a single feed, does not change the fact that “the man with leisure has to accept what the culture manufacturers offer him” (Horkheimer 124). When exercising the abilities conferred on us by the broadcasting network, we are also affirming their power to determine what abilities we are given, as well as the commodity system that perpetuates that power relationship.

With the increasing ubiquity of Internet-enabled devices in the United States and the growing popularity of “America’s favorite sport” around the globe, the streaming of the Super Bowl will no doubt become an integral part of the presentation of the game and its accompanying spectacles in the years to come. That integration is worthy of both optimistic enthusiasm, as it empowers the viewer to partake in determining what images he or she witnesses, and careful scrutiny, as it expands the networks’ power to a subtler, more foundational manipulation of invisible televisual functions. Viewers must not succumb to the illusion that they are being given substantial control over the mediated event, but they may still test and explore the abilities and boundaries of a new form of mediation that encourages agency and interaction in a way that the television cannot.

Works Cited

“CBS: Record 3 Million Stream Super Bowl.” NetNewsCheck. NewsCheckMedia, 6 Feb. 2013. Web. 9 Feb. 2013.

Horkheimer, Max and Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: The Continuum Publishing Company, 1998. Print.

Kafka, Peter. “CBS Takes a Second Shot at the Super Bowl’s Second Screen.” All Things D. Dow Jones and Company, 3 Feb. 2013. Web. 9 Feb. 2013.

Langford, Richard. “Super Bowl 2013: Live Stream Will Provide Great 2nd-Screen Option.” Bleacher Report. Turner Broadcasting System, 3 Feb. 2013. Web. 9 Feb. 2013.

John Boles

John Boles is a former Master's candidate in the Communication, Culture & Technology program at Georgetown University and a blogger for gnovis. He double-majored in Communication and Music at Boston College, exploring the intersection of entertainment media including film, television, music, literature, and video games. At Georgetown he is expanding those studies with research on the economics of the cultural industries and the complex issues of narrative and identity intrinsic to the creative process. John is also a composer and guitarist, who most recently released a solo album under the name Align in Time.