Red Right 88

In Cleveland, hope dies last

Why Do We Watch?

In today’s The Way We Live Now column of The New York Times Magazine, author Walter Kirn asks why people are more interested in the backstory and behind-the-scenes machinations rather than in the actual movie or sport they are watching.

Kirn calls this fascination “procedural voyeurism,” which he describes as:

“a redirection of mass attention from the spectacle of the game itself to the circus of the game behind the game, as when LeBron James … commandeered the TV sets of upteen thousands of sports bars, not to mention the better part of the Web’s bandwidth, to tell us … that he was moving from Cleveland to Miami … “

Yep, he made this about LeBron; and you were wondering how this would tie into Cleveland sports.

It’s an interesting question; one certainly worth pondering. There was enough palace intrigue breathlessly reported in the weeks leading up to LeBron leaving Cleveland: all the “sources” who knew what he was going to do, the work of Wes Wesley behind the scenes to deliver LeBron and John Calipari as a package deal, Maverick Carter going to a basketball game with David Geffen. At times it felt like it would never stop.

But that’s not why I watched: I watched because LeBron’s decision had an impact on me as a Cavs fan. But if it was Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant or any other NBA player making an announcement, would I have tuned in? Not really. I would have just checked the Internet or the ESPN crawl after I knew the announcement had been made, but I would have no reason to watch it live.

It could be that we’re not really interested in the backstage shenanigans, but rather we absorb them because that’s what the endless media news cycle pushes down our throats. Think of how many hours ESPN devoted during the hours leading up to LeBron’s announcement. People watched because it was just … there. Watching TV is a passive activity, I think ESPN was counting on the fact that if they said it was a big deal, then people would believe it was a big deal.

On one level it worked, as LeBron’s decision gave the network its second-highest ranking of the year, but it left ESPN ombudsman Don Ohlmeyer questioning the network:

“Some found ESPN guilty of violating a key ethical journalistic tenet — paying for news. Others disdained the network’s perceived pandering to a superstar, a trait causing them to ponder the network’s biases. Still others decried a simple announcement being manufactured into the suspense of a “second coming.” The monstrous hype that led up to the special was a calculated and constructed spotlight that media far beyond ESPN helped feed. To many, the aggregate was an affront to humility, loyalty, moderation … and instead became a celebration of greed, ego and excess.”

And the media who criticized it actually helped feed the spectacle, as Kirn wrote:

“Not long after James appeared on television … media critics and sports writers weighed in to debate the business ethics of the broadcast itself. One observer wondered whether the show would usher in a crass new age of unpaid advertisements for brand-name athletes whose egos have grown larger than the leagues they play in. He needn’t have wondered this, though. He knew the answer. Of course it was a sign of worse to come and partly because he helped define that worse thing by publicly criticizing it.”

Kirn concludes by saying that, by being invested in the behind-the-scenes work, viewers feel a sense of control, as if by watching we can influence the outcome:

“procedural voyeurism grants us an illusion of control over realities that we secretly fear we have no power over… (and) symbolic participation in games-within-games that are way above our heads and occur within heavily guarded inner circles that we can peek into but never truly penetrate.”

As Cavs fans, we knew we had no control over what LeBron did, whether we watched his decision or not. And the fear was not one of a loss of power, but the fear of life without the two-time MVP on our side.

The last few months have left me seriously burnt out. I watch sports because they are entertaining. I follow the business side because I find it interesting and, with so many player decisions made solely on the basis of money (see, Indians, Cleveland) you must have a working knowledge of that side as a fan.

But the rest of it leaves me cold. And the next time I hear an anchor or reporter start off with “sources say” I’m more than likely to tune them out.

Because that’s not why I watch.

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