Railing against TV's latest gadget

| Thursday, Jan. 25, 2007

DALLAS - I had every intention of watching the 55th NHL All-Star Game from the press box Wednesday night at American Airlines Center.

Unfortunately, I forgot my oxygen tank. The press box here is located just above the Goodyear Blimp.

Still, I was going to give it a shot until something caught my eye on the Versus television feed downstairs.

Something hideous.

Something called the "Rail Cam," a high-definition camera that raced along the top of the glass - and the bottom of the television screen.

It kept catching my eye, like a mouse darting through the garage.

"What was that ?!"

It was, in fact, another misguided NHL attempt to make its game television-friendly.

Stop trying so hard, people. If it's the speed of the game you're trying to convey, forget it. Can't be done, except maybe in snippets, the way NASCAR captures the speed around turns with a static camera.

Even the NFL has trouble translating the speed of its game to TV. Instead, slow-motion shots are used to capture the drama and athleticism.

The action shown through the Rail Cam was enough to make you seasick. The thing couldn't follow players through their turns, either, and was so close to the action that it eliminated any semblance of context.

But that wasn't nearly as bad as when the regular camera was running while the Rail Cam scurried along on the bottom of the screen. Several times, it looked as if a miniature runaway robot was joining the rush ("Western Conference goal, scored by R2-D2."). Other times, the camera went against the rush, creating a terrible distraction.

Even when the Rail Cam was nowhere to be found, the thick black rail on the top of the glass gave the broadcast a split-screen effect.

On a positive note, it was neat to hear Eastern Conference goaltender Martin Brodeur - during a break in the action -- talking to announcers Mike Emrick and Eddie Olczyk through a microphone. Unfortunately, Brian Rolston ripped a slap shot that dislodged the mike from Brodeur's pads.

That was one shot Rail Cam caught nicely. Another was when Eric Staal bolted down the right wing in the third period.

Western Conference goalie Marty Turco spoke to the announcers during the action and delivered some funny stuff. When Olczyk asked him how important it was to communicate with his defensemen, Turco stopped in the middle of his answer to play the puck.

"You gotta hold on a second," he said.

Meanwhile, Christine Simpson, younger sister of ex-Penguins player Craig Simpson, probably is the top sideline/rinkside reporter in sports at the moment. She handled a delicate interview with Western Conference defenseman Philippe Boucher, whose father is ill, with aplomb between the second and third periods.

Really, though, there isn't much good to report when it comes to the NHL on TV. The league's ratings have declined precipitously over the past decade.

Back in 1996-97 - Mario Lemieux's final season before his first retirement - games averaged a 1.9 rating. That shrunk to 1.4 the next two seasons, then to 1.3, 1.1, 1.4, 1.1 and 1.1 before a lockout wiped out the 2004-05 season.

Last year, the average rating was 1.0 on NBC, while games on Versus averaged microscopic 0.2 rating, or fewer than 200,000 households. Through 32 Versus telecasts this season, the ratings were about the same.

A consistently compelling product might help to change that. A Rail Cam most certainly will not.

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