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Schedules and Silences

By RD Heldenfels Published: November 14, 2005

I've been thinking lately about the joys of football without sound, and I'll get to that later in this post. But first, fun with schedules.

I only made it to halftime of the Steelers-Browns game last night, because I needed to sleep and the 10-point Steeler lead felt pretty solid (well, solid enough not to overcome my weariness). But about 1:30 a.m. I woke up, wasn't going back to sleep immediately and flipped on the TV to check the score.

Then was stunned.

Not because the Steelers had won, or because Batch had broken his hand, or anything game-related. Instead, I was shocked because that ''Saturday Night Live'' documentary was on Channel 3, which picked up the local broadcast rights to ESPN's telecast of Browns-Steelers.

I had gone to great lengths to warn people that Browns-Steelers was going to send NBC's prime-time schedule into the wee hours, and the lineup I had written about had Penn & Teller from 12:30 to 2:30 a.m., followed by the ''SNL'' special.

My onscreen cable guide had the order reversed. I agonized. I hate making mistakes. Obviously human, I make them. But readers expect everything they see in the paper to be correct -- and when it comes to TV, they plan their viewing around the lineups we include -- so I check and double-check program times to make sure they're right.

I got up, double-checked the paper to see what I had written, then went online looking for an explanation. The Channel 3 Web site had the shows listed in the order they were actually airing. Could I have messed up? Finally I found a copy of the Browns telecast announcement that Channel 3 sent out; it had things the way I had written them. The schedule had gone out almost two weeks ago (and, because of the deadline for our TV supplement, I had written about the show a week before the piece was published). And the Channel 3 announcement had a note that it had been updated on Thursday, just a few days before the game.

So when the station flipped the shows, it seemed to have done so very late in the process. (Update: Channel 3 now says that the decision to flip the programs was made about two weeks ago. The station also says the change was made at NBC's request, since the network apparently thought it would do better with ''SNL'' in the post-football slot. But the station did not do a very good job of getting word about the change out.)

Even though the error was the result of bad information, it took me about an hour to get back to sleep. As I said, I hate mistakes.

As for watching football in silence, with so many night games, I find myself watching the end of good games in bed with the sound off, so my wife can sleep. Although some of the excitement from a live football game stems from crowd noise and the sounds of the players, on TV I find it more intense to watch it without sound.

You don't miss much, since yardage, downs, penalties and other crucial data are explained in onscreen graphics. And anyone who has watched much football knows what the announcers will say in a given situation -- or at least knows anything sensible the announcers will say. Then, if you take away the audio, you have to pay more attention to the image on the screen. That increased level of concentration adds to the excitement, I think. When you have the sound on, you're letting the TV do a lot of the work for you, so you don't have to pay as close attention -- especially if you're watching with a bunch of friends eager to high-five every triumph. Without the sound, you have to be in the game every second.

While there was at least one experiment with commentary-free TV, I doubt we'll ever have soundless sports, unless we make it by ourselves. For one thing, it's an inconvenience for people who watch TV in groups. Or for people who, say, have to be in the kitchen while the TV is on -- loud -- in another room, so they can keep track of the action and rush back to watch a key replay. For another, if you don't have announcers, there's no one to do a lot of commercial business -- promoting other shows on the network, or telling you who sponsored the trivia question.

Besides, it's hard to fall asleep in front of the set without the steady hum of announcing.

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