Did you watch the game last night?
No matter if you live in Australia, England, India, Ontario, or the US, chances are you’ve heard that question today. Televised sports are a constant presence in contemporary culture, providing a common set of experiences and references for people in the workplace, the airport terminal, the dormitory, and even, in the case of the World Cup and Olympics, around the world. As individuals, televised sport shapes our everyday speech and behaviors (anybody ever lift their arms in celebration and mimic the roar of the crowd after tossing trash in the bin?). Our life stories are punctuated by moments of watching sports. Among my own fondest memories are hours at the TV, watching hockey with my grandmother, soccer with my children, the Olympics with my wife, and, on one late winter night, the NFL playoffs with a crowd of American travelers in an East European pub. Whenever I catch the replay of a particular moment from an event I have watched years ago—say the closing seconds of the “Miracle on Ice,” or Ali lighting the torch in Atlanta, or Doug Flutie’s “Hail Mary” pass in 1984—the memories are immediate and vivid. I can remember where I was, and who was with me, when I watched it happen live on TV.
The hold that televised sport has on our individual and collective memories is all the more remarkable when you consider that the medium is relatively young. The first nationwide broadcasts of events in the US came only in the 1950s. The Olympics first appeared on television in the mid-Sixties, the same decade that brought the rise of professional football, today the most popular sport on American television. Dennis Deninger recounts this history in his book, Sports on Television: The How and Why Behind What You See (Routledge, 2012), beginning with the first televised baseball game in 1939 and taking the story to today’s round-the-clock, global sport networks. But as the subtitle indicates, Dennis’ book is more than a history. As a longtime producer at ESPN, Dennis offers an insider’s view of how televised sport is programmed and packaged, and the ways in which sports television has shaped our culture. If you’re someone like me, who has grown up watching sports on TV, you’ll learn a lot from Dennis’ book, and hopefully our interview, from why the 1987 America’s Cup was an important event in the history of sports television, to how to prepare for the lights going out at the Super Bowl.