(Don’t) give us a break: Cricket on television is becoming unwatchable due to intrusive ads

The broadcast of the tri-series final between India and Bangladesh drew plenty of ire on social media for the volume of commercial breaks.

Commentator, as the ball reaches the boundary: “Oh! That is a lovely shot by....”
Cut to Hema Malini: “Shud paani ke liye, Kent RO hi laaye.

In his most famous essay, Roger Federer as Religious Experience, the late David Foster Wallace took a dig at television broadcasters for consciously ignoring the warm-up before the start of the 2006 Wimbledon men’s singles final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

“Nadal and Federer now warm each other up for precisely five minutes; the umpire keeps time. There’s a very definite order and etiquette to these pro warm-ups, which is something that television has decided you’re not interested in seeing,” he’d written.

If not being able to see the warm-up of a tennis match, even if it’s a Wimbledon final involving the top two players of then (and now), had irked Wallace, how would he have reacted to the Nidahas Trophy broadcast by DSport, who cut to advertisements on random occasions – sometimes even before an over’s completion. Not that we are comparing the two events, of course, but one can only wonder what his reaction would have been.

Where’s broadcast headed?

Even if not with Wallace’s eloquent prose, the television audience of the Nidahas Trophy tri-series voiced their frustration on social media of not being able to experience the game in its entirety. “Don’t spoil my ad-watching experience by showing cricket in between,” was the sarcastic sentiment of many a Indian viewer.

The Nidahas Trophy, contrary to expectations before the tournament started, served up some high-octane thrillers. India themselves were involved in two entertaining matches – the opener against Sri Lanka and the final against Bangladesh. The fact that India sent an inexperienced squad helped even the playing field and there was considerable interest in seeing how this second string side performs at the international level.

The broadcaster did not set the right tone from the beginning of the series. During the first match, their on-field presenter Archana Vijaya was in the middle of an interview on the sidelines when the channel abruptly cut to commercials. No “we’ll continue after this short break” business. She was cut off mid-sentence because the over being bowled was complete.

And as we got to the final, things got worse – commercials starting while the batsmen were still completing their run off the last ball of the over; commercials literally the second after a catch was taken, cutting off their own commentators; commercials, about 10 seconds after Dinesh Karthik hit the last-ball six in the final.

It’s worth understanding that DSport is unlikely to get a series featuring India to broadcast anytime soon. They do not have rights for any of the top cricketing nations, so even away tours are unlikely. This was a one-off for the newly launched channel and deep down, you could understand them wanting to milk air-time and maximise revenue generation from advertisements. As inexcusable as it got, one could maybe find it in their hearts to let this go as an one-off.

Disturbing trends

But the problems run deeper. The DSport broadcast was a new low in a recent trend where matches involving India are becoming almost unwatchable because of the advertisement intrusion. Take Sony Pictures Sports Network’s broadcast of India’s high-profile tour of South Africa earlier this year. While Sony was just using the feed of the home broadcaster for the series (SuperSport), commercial breaks were still being controlled by Sony and it reached laughable levels in the final T20I of the three-match series.

It was the decider, of course, and the match had gone to the last over. Christiaan Jonker was going bonkers with the bat as South Africa threatened to win a match that looked in India’s control for a long time. After 16 runs were conceded in the 19th over, Bhuvneshwar Kumar was to bowl the final over of the tour, with 18 runs to defend. He conceded six off the first three balls and the equation was down to 12 required off three. Rohit Sharma, the captain that night, knew this was a tricky situation that warranted a talk with his bowler. The tension was mounting... and the broadcasters decided to cut to commercials.

In the middle of a tense final over in the deciding game of a series, no less.

Imagine. This is the stuff fans used to joke about. “The ads are becoming so frequent that soon we will have breaks in the middle of a over” is sadly not an imaginary scenario anymore. Clearly, no match-situation is sacrosanct. And even the bigger names in the industry like Sony are not setting the right example for a new entrant like DSport to follow.

Cricket comes secondary, making money out of it has slowly, but surely, taken precedence.

No laughing matter

When Justice Lodha’s recommendations to clean up cricket were made public, one aspect that stood out as impractical was the attempt to curb advertisement interruptions.

“It is recommended that all existing contracts for international Test & One-Day matches be revised and new ones ensure that only breaks taken by both teams for drinks, lunch and tea will permit the broadcast to be interrupted with advertisements...”

— From Lodha committee's original report on reforms to be brought about in Indian cricket

It was seen as an extreme restriction and one that was even struck down by the Supreme Court subsequently. The fact that advertisers are still going nuts to be featured during an India match is, ultimately, a sign of the health of the game and must not be scoffed at.

It is understood that advertisement air-time is part of contracts between boards and broadcasters but is it being enforced? The broadcasters shell out plenty from their pockets to acquire rights, yes, but where does one draw the line? Does the BCCI and other boards care enough about the viewing experience of the fan to act as the watchdog?

Do the broadcasters care enough about the game so as not to make an extra few lakhs and ensure fans don’t have a jarring experience? Who is willing to put their foot down and say: enough is enough, the adverts are coming in because of the cricket and let’s not forget that?

There are plenty of questions, but our guess is that we are unlikely to get answers for any of this, anytime soon. Until then, we would have make do with the fact that Hema Malini selling water purifiers takes precedence over commentators finishing their sentences or watching replays of a wicket falling. Nothing against the “Dream Girl” of Bollywood, but this doesn’t feel like the dream scenario for any cricket fan.

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