High inside the Orlando Magic’s just-opened, half-billion-dollar basketball arena, behind a closed door labeled VIDEO CONTROL, some two dozen people wear headsets, stare at screens and have titles like producer, video shader and technical director. Their job is to take the game below and turn it into a show.
They flood with images the building’s many screens, but especially the ones that make up the 40-ton center-hung scoreboard that is four stories tall and four stories wide.
Orlando’s high-tech set-up is the biggest in any arena in North America. The Super Bowl is about to be played in Texas under a video screen the size of the White House. It’s the biggest screen in the world until May, when the Charlotte Motor Speedway unveils one that’s even bigger.
This makes now a good moment to consider the cultural history of the JumboTron, to take stock of what we have done to it, and what it has done to us.
The first big video screen in a sports stadium was installed more than 30 years ago. We are the JumboTron Generation.
The term JumboTron technically refers to a Sony product that’s actually no longer even made. It galls to no end the industry leaders at Mitsubishi Electric, but everybody still calls a big screen at a sports event “The JumboTron.” The JumboTron at this point is an idea.
Before Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, the JumboTron encouraged attention-getting but ultimately ephemeral little performance pieces from fans in the stands. On the JumboTron, people cheered for racing dots; on the JumboTron, people danced the chicken dance; on the JumboTron, people proposed marriage.
It has blurred the lines between those who are watching and those who are being watched. It has blurred the lines between sports and entertainment and between information and advertisement. It has blurred the lines between what’s real and what’s not.
At stake is our continued ability to tell the difference.
Mitsubishi installed the first big screen in 1980, at Dodger Stadium, in time for Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game. It measured barely more than two stories tall and three stories wide. The team called it “the largest color television in the world.”
The Mets got one in 1982, then the White Sox did, and then the Mariners and the Twins and the Brewers. Panasonic built a big screen for the Los Angeles Coliseum for the Olympics in 1984.
The Sony JumboTron debuted at a tech expo in Japan in 1985. It cost $16 million and stood 14 stories tall and was called the JumboTron because it used the company’s Trinitron technology. The expo featured computer-designed 3-D movies that included songs with lyrics like, “machines and humans can be friends.”
It wasn’t long before the New York Times ran a story with the headline, “For Some Ball Parks, Entertainment, Not Tradition, is Trend.” The JumboTron, the story said, “keeps patrons enraptured …”
The Reds got a JumboTron in Cincinnati. The Giants got a JumboTron in San Francisco. The Twins got one in Minneapolis, the Spurs got one in San Antonio, and the Bucs got one in Tampa.
A fan at a game in Tampa tried to start a chant in the stands:
“Jumbo, Jumbo, Jumbo!”
In 1989, at baseball’s All-Star Game in Anaheim, dots raced in the second inning, and the fourth, and the sixth and the eighth. Toronto’s SkyDome opened with a JumboTron three stories tall and 11 stories wide, three times the size of any other to that point. And in October, when the earthquake shook San Francisco during the World Series, the JumboTron went blank, then flickered back on to show a few Japanese characters, then went back to being blank.
“Hey,” Minnesota Vikings coach Dennis Green said in 1992, “every stadium has a JumboTron.”
Not every stadium.
“Our fans have been asking,” the University of Arkansas athletics director told a local reporter in 2000, “’When, when, when will we get a JumboTron?’”
The University of Texas football team celebrated its national championship in 2006 by getting what was then the biggest JumboTron in the world. It was more than five stories tall and 13 stories wide. Some nicknamed it the Godzillatron. “Man that’s big,” one Longhorn said.
Which might have been impressive if not for the Dallas Cowboys’ ruthlessly innovative and relentlessly capitalistic owner. Jerry Jones first thought of the so-called JerryTron at a Celine Dion concert in Las Vegas. He noticed he spent more time watching the giant screen behind the singer than he did watching the singer herself.
So he had built in his team’s fancy new stadium a $40 million JumboTron that is seven stories tall and 18 stories wide -- three-fifths of the length of the field below -- and is the equivalent of more than 3,200 52-inch TVs.
The goal was to create “an unequaled fan experience,” Jones said in late 2009, “and this screen is the centerpiece.”
Here, then, was an important line, crossed.
Is the centerpiece.
That’s what he said.
“You find your eye instinctively straying to the crystal-sharp projections of light and color instead of the play on the field,” a travel writer wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “After a while, the mesmerizing mirage on the boards had to be consciously resisted: ‘I will watch the next play live, really, I will.’”
Back in Orlando, Rick Price, the Magic’s assistant director of broadcast technology, likened the Cowboys’ screen to a bug zapper.
Under Orlando’s center-hung, a kid on the court, the fan of the game, counts down to the player introductions: “5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1 …”
The lights go off. Everything goes black except the unavoidable node of the screen.
All eyes on the screen.
On the screen are two hosts. One is a fit and frenetic young man who goes by Scotty B and is called the “entertainment jockey.” The other is an attractive brunette who goes by Megan and is called the co-emcee.
On the screen are people drinking cocktails in any of the many suites and a boy playing what looks like an imaginary sax and a man wearing a blue Dwight Howard jersey over a shirt and a tie. On the screen is a fat guy in a white jacket dancing and then rubbing his belly and then turning around and bouncing his butt, and the longer he does it, the louder the cheers, and the ovation continues even after the camera moves on. On the screen is an aging financial planner in the first row in a sweater vest with his glasses propped on top of his balding head who’s yelling at the refs and who’s now noticing that he’s on the screen and so he’s yelling at the refs even more.
The screen asks them to JUMP UP AND SHOUT NOW.
It tells them to MAKE SOME NOISE.
The Kia Noise Meter tells them to get LOUDER. The Kia Noise Meter tells them to get
LOUDEST. The Kia Noise Meter tells them to get LOUDEREST.
And they do.
On the screen are the Geico gecko and AirTran airplanes taking off, and taking off, and taking off, and Disney’s Tinker Bell flitting around, followed by all of her pixie dust, which seems appropriate. Because Orlando’s never been a sports town. Always, or at least since 1971, when Walt Disney showed up and razed so much citrus, Orlando’s been a fantasy town.
The screen asks them to send their fan photos to firstname.lastname@example.org. The screen asks them to text their picks for the Subway sub of the game. The screen asks them to send in their Magic grams.
And they do.
I wuv yew Magic!
This, the mayor of Orlando says, is “a superior fan experience.” This, the president of the Magic says, is “a full-spectrum fan experience.”
“When you walk into the building,” says Kevin Cosgrove, the Magic’s director of broadcast production, “you’re overwhelmed with color, information, sound and statistics.”
“The game itself is a diminishing part of the total experience,” says professor Dick Crepeau, on the phone from the University of Central Florida, where he teaches American and sports history. “At what point does the game become irrelevant?”
As screens get bigger, better and brighter, which they do always and forever and exponentially, they relegate what is reality to something somehow lesser.
The Dwight Howard that is 42 feet tall on the screen is better than the Dwight Howard that is merely 7 feet tall on the court.
Life loses out to larger than life. Life loses out to lifelike.
What the screen does is turn everything else into a potential piece of content. The game is a potential piece of content. So are the people who play it. So are the statistics and the ads. Digital bits, and that’s it, Jaron Lanier writes in You Are Not a Gadget, “fragments to be exploited by others.”
The game is just the game. The show, though, is what’s on the screen. And what’s on the screen is technologically savvy, recorded, replayed and repackaged, and very hard to ignore.
It’s a literally scripted and professionally done YouTube mashup.
Lanier would call it “second-order expression.”
Fans in particular become not just spectators, but participants.
The boy with the imaginary sax. The fat guy with the white jacket and the bouncing butt. The aging financial planner yelling at the refs. JUMP UP AND SHOUT NOW.
“These new venues are every bit as much video studios as they are football fields or basketball courts,” Robert Thompson says from Syracuse University, where he’s a professor of television and popular culture. “Sports, now, they’re television shows, and the fans are all extras.”
Are they spectators of the show, Rick Price of the Magic is asked, or are they part of the show?
He doesn’t hesitate: “Part of the show.”
Images of fans, he says, are up, “double or triple what it was” in years past at the old, much less technologically capable arena.
The simple central expression of the team’s current marketing campaign?
This illusion of unity, stoked by the JumboTron -- I’m part of this, too! -- makes fans more pliant consumers.
“Here’s what I want you to do, Magic fans,” co-emcee Megan says on the JumboTron. “Log on to healthy100.org/magic and tell us what you’d do if you live to 100 …”
The Magic sells available “moments of exclusivity,” in which a company’s logo or message is on every screen in the arena, from the JumboTron -- with its screens and the “wedges” between the screens and its rotating “rings” -- to the “ribbons” running around the facades of the concrete bowls to the smaller screens above the entryways into the areas with the seats to the ones by the concession stands to the ones inside the bathrooms themselves. The feature was one of the major motivators behind the technology.
On the JumboTron, even the blips of the moments between the replays and the live action are in fact ads -- a flash of a Gatorade G, an eye blink of an image that is nonetheless inescapable. “Replay wipes,” they’re called.
“We have invented inspiring and enhancing technologies,” MIT social scientist Sherry Turkle writes in the recently published Alone Together, “and yet we have allowed them to diminish us.”
People saw this coming.
Walter Lippmann in "Public Opinion" distinguished between “the world outside and the pictures in our heads.”
He wrote that in 1922.
Ray Bradbury in "Fahrenheit 451" envisioned a future of wall-sized televisions with images that seemed “as real as the world.”
He wrote that in 1953.
Daniel J. Boorstin in "The Image" outlined the effects of what he called the Graphic Revolution. Its “central paradox,” he explained, was that “the rise of images and of our power over the world blurs rather than sharpens the outlines of reality. …
“We are deceived and obstructed,” he concluded,” by the very machines we make to enlarge our vision.”
He wrote that in 1961.
Nineteen years later, the Dodgers put in their first screen; five years after that, Sony introduced the JumboTron; and 24 years after that, the JerryTron went up in Texas, about which Jerry Jones has said, “You’re not going to know or remember whether you saw it happening directly on the field or whether in your mind’s eye, the perception of it, you saw it on this digital board.”
So now here we are.
Some 183 million Americans play video games an average of 13 hours a week, Jane McGonigal writes in her recent book "Reality Is Broken."
In the past 10 years, “reality” TV has gone from 20 shows to more than 560, according to a series of stories last year in the Kansas City Star.
Americans make up 6 percent of the world’s population but consume nearly 60 percent of its advertising.
The technology is going where it always goes, says Mark Steinkamp of Daktronics, the company behind the screens in Orlando. It’s getting brighter, better, cheaper.
For fans in the stands, says Neal Gabler, the author of "Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality," “you’ll go to the stadium and you’ll watch everything except the game. You won’t be watching the floor in basketball or the field in football. That, in my mind, is the next phase.”
Way back more than 22 years ago, in a letter to the editor in the New York Times on July 31, 1988, future attorney Jonathan A. Judd of Queens wrote: “I feel compelled to write on behalf of the legions of fans I am sure are offended by incessant mind-control tactics employed by the New York Mets on their Diamond Vision screen.”
It’s still true, far more true now, certainly, than it was in 1988.
But who talks like that anymore?
High inside the arena in Orlando, behind the closed door labeled VIDEO CONTROL, the people wear headsets and stare at screens and work to make the game below a show.
“Cue the crowd,” one of them says.
-- Michael Kruse is a staff writer at the St. Petersburg Times. Follow him on Twitter @michaelkruse.