Remember a time, not so long ago, when wearing a live, concealed microphone while doing your job meant that you were either an anchorman or an FBI informant? When the only athlete who audibled during a game was the quarterback? When potty-mouthed jocks were, to paraphrase W.C. Fields, obscene and not heard?
Those days are over. Today everyone in sports, at the behest of the networks, is going Donnie Brasco. First base coaches wear mikes. Jerry Bailey, who rode Red Bullet to victory in last May's Preakness Stakes, was miked during the race. (Red Bullet wasn't.) On XFL telecasts NBC uses 26 mikes, for players, referees, coaches and, regrettably, Jesse Ventura. At last weekend's NBA All-Star weekend festivities, it seemed as if more players wanted to be, like, miked than be like Mike.
Finally, if next week you find yourself hearing voices while watching the Canadian Tour Myrtle Beach Open on the Golf Channel, do not fear. You're not insane. Rather, you're experiencing the network's newest gimmick, the miking of players. (Four among the 132-man field will be wired for sound.) We repeat: You're not mentally disturbed, though the fact that you're watching the Myrtle Beach Open might call into question this diagnosis.
"The first lesson in novel writing," says John Gonzalez, NBC's coordinating director of XFL broadcasts, "is show, don't tell. Let the viewer experience it firsthand. We're trying to take advantage of the access that we've been afforded." As anyone who witnessed the profanity-smeared pregame introductions during last month's Super Bowl on CBS can attest, viewers don't always welcome what the broadcasters have been afforded. Thus NBC protects the audience for the mike-heavy XFL games by using a five-second delay. The network employs Jackie Singer, a senior at Arizona State, as its censor. She sits in a room near the production truck and, says Gonzalez, "her entire job is to listen for profanity. If she hears it, she presses a button. We already have a nickname for her: the Finger."
The jury is still out on miking. Yes, it was exciting to watch Bailey, moments after having shared his Preakness game plan with the ABC commentators, pull off the upset just as he'd called it—and then speak with the commentators again seconds after Red Bullet had crossed the finish line. That was good storytelling. What remains to be seen is whether networks can exercise discretion with their Orwellian toy.