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Watching the future of TV

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's Dec. 30, 2029, and Seymour Gamz is riled. From his luxury waterfront residence in Curtis Bay, Gamz is watching the Ravens' game in his home theater when he hears a disturbing report: The team's top receiver, Todd Heap Jr., appears to be favoring the hamstring that he injured earlier in Baltimore's victory over the Seoul Train.

"No way!" shouts Gamz, a longtime fan, who grabs the remote and punches some buttons. Instantly, the television - a huge 3-D screen covering two walls - splits into a dozen smaller windows. One screen isolates on Heap in the day's contest; another displays his statistics, game by game. A third screen shows Heap's medical history; another supplies background on typical hamstring injuries.

Gamz scans the screens, and others, including one that shows recent interviews with Heap, who swears that his thigh is fine.

"I knew it," says Gamz. He picks up his cell phone and text-messages the pro football network, giving producers a piece of his mind.

Moments later, his gripe is relayed to the same sideline reporter who'd brought it all up.

"We've just heard from Mr. Seymour Gamz, in Baltimore, who doubts the veracity of our report," the sportscaster says. "But I spoke with Todd before the game, and he said that he 'tweaked' that hamstring in practice this week."

Such is the future of TV sports, industry analysts say. It has been 25 years since ESPN broke from the gate and changed the viewing landscape. But the technological advances of that era - from point-of-view cameras placed inside racecars, to football's digitally projected first-down lines - pale alongside those predicted for the next 25 years.

What's ahead? Curved TV screens the size of cycloramas. Channels for every sport imaginable. And interactive programming that allows fans to choose everything from their favorite camera angles for games to the players they want to chat with afterward.

"Viewers will be able to drill deep inside of sports and access athletes on the granular level," says Len DeLuca, vice president of programming strategy at ESPN. "The balance of power is shifting from providers to fans.

"Cameras and microphones will be everywhere. You'll see and hear what goes on in locker rooms. And, for an extra charge, you can conduct TV post-game interviews with [the next] Ray Lewis."

You're in the action

The day is nigh, say experts, when television lifts viewers out of their La-Z-Boys and puts them into the path of a blitzing linebacker or a 95-mph fastball.

"Imagine football players with mini-cameras and sensors woven into their uniforms, allowing fans to see and experience everything that they do," says Robert Johnson, chief executive officer of Black Entertainment Television. Those microchips will let viewers track anything from an athlete's heart rate to the impact of a bone-jarring tackle.

Says Johnson: "It's virtual reality except that, at home, you can't feel the hit in football - unless the TV is set to give you an electric shock."

Industry advances will also allow consumers to tailor their sports programming to suit themselves, Johnson says. It won't be long, experts agree, before viewers are choosing from among a bevy of camera shots, graphics and instant replays.

"You'll be your own director. Your living room will be like the [network] control truck outside the stadium," says Michael Davis, senior editor at TV Guide. "Fans love the 'gizmo' factor. You'll be able to isolate on anything from a Ravens wide receiver to Shaq's big butt."

The options may be limited only by the fans' imagination, Davis says. "Someday, there may be an ESPN karaoke channel, where people can be their own sportscaster."

Look for a deluge of viewing choices, analysts say. Pro football, basketball, baseball and hockey will have their own cable channels. But so will sports with niche audiences, such as lacrosse, volleyball and archery.

"Your TV universe is becoming like a magazine kiosk with boutique channels," says Ed Goren, president of Fox Sports.

But separate stations for hunting and fishing? For billiards and bowling? Why not, says Robert Thompson, professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University.

"If you'd told me five years ago that playing cards would be one of the big TV breakthroughs, I'd have said you were crazy," Thompson says. "Poker is the most non-telegenic activity short of knitting. But they figured out how to do it, with cameras."

"We're heading toward a highly fragmented video marketplace," says Neal Pilson, a media consultant and former head of CBS Sports. "Someday, a greyhound racing fan will get an automatic e-mail reminding him of live racing tonight on TV at 8 o'clock."

Where to turn?

"There will be so many choices, it will be like FM radio," says Lesley Visser, a CBS Sports reporter who began at that network in 1984. A history buff, Visser awaits the day when she can scroll through an electronic sports video archive containing footage of every classic ever played.

"I want to be able to push a button and call up the 1985 NCAA basketball championship [Villanova 66, Georgetown 64] or some of those great Green Bay Packers-Chicago Bears games," she says. "I could watch them over and over, the same way I never get tired of reading [Ernest Hemingway's] The Sun Also Rises."

You make the call

Consumers who prefer the open-mike approach to sports could probably get a tell-it-like-it-is version.

"We might have 'discreet' pay-per-view sports channels, where the cuss words of players and coaches aren't censored," says Johnson, the BET executive and owner of the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats. "Call them full-reality channels; they'd have a parental lock."

Also in the offing: a lottery gaming channel that lets viewers vie for prizes.

"Watching the game, you'll compete with a pool of others to guess the next play," Johnson says. "Will it be a pass to the wide-out or a run by the fullback? You'd vote on your screen and collect points toward winning something - say, an island in the Caribbean."

Televisions will keep expanding in size, for those who demand to see more on their screens than simple play-by-play.

"I'd expect to see a lot of informational support, like the statistics of a particular quarterback throwing to a particular receiver in the red zone. That's the minutiae that's interesting to me," says Terry McDonnell, managing editor of Sports Illustrated.

How detailed?

Says McDonnell: "I'll order a TV big enough so that when I'm watching the game between Florida and Florida State, on one side of the screen I can call up all of the players' [college board] scores.

"You will also be able to apply fantasy gaming to TV sports. I want to know what [quarterback] Jeff Garcia does for my fantasy team, at the same time that he is passing for Cleveland."

As technology grows, say industry experts, so will the blur between reality and fantasy. Fox's Goren sees the day when NASCAR fans, watching a live race on TV, can flip a switch and project themselves on the screen, circling the track at Daytona and battling the pros.

"You'd be driving a virtual car, but in a real race, against the Dale Earnhardts and Jeff Gordons," Goren says.

And there is one more view of sports circa 2029, a somewhat jaundiced one from Rachael Church, director of ArkSports, a London-based sports consulting and technology firm:

"Sports programming is now controlled by a conglomeration owned by Rupert Murdoch who, thanks to cloning, will live for eternity.

"Because sports fans are no longer able to attend events live (due to global warming), all contact with sports is via the medium of television (which is also a computer and handy vacuum cleaner).

"Athletes participate interactively in their sports via virtual reality; they compete while plugged into super computers from their luxury hotel rooms, thus preventing potentially litigious injuries ... "

All of these innovations raise the question: Why go to games? In 25 years, why would people endure traffic jams, bad weather and $40 hot dogs when their home theater offers so much more?

"There's an enjoyment factor in being at a college football game with 90,000 others," says Pilson, the consultant. "There's a group dynamic to it.

"We are a social species."

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