Image via InsteadofTexting.wordpress.com.
Image via InsteadofTexting.wordpress.com.
The ball was tipped and here we are. Tonight Kentucky and Kansas fight not only for the NCAA Championship but for a starring role in college basketball’s highlight-y rite of spring, CBS’s “One Shining Moment” montage. For more than two decades, this one syrupy song and assorted highlights from the year’s tournament has capped CBS’s coverage of March Madness. The montage is as much a college basketball tradition as filling in a doomed bracket and neglecting work during the first week of games.
Each year, it’s easy to imagine a producer with a checklist ticking off each item he needs to put the “One Shining Moment” montage together. For the opening instrumental, there must be the artistry of dance: cheerleaders, pep band members, precocious children in the crowd, players in a circle breaking down to a beat that’s not like anything in the song. There must be people diving on the floor, coaches hugging losing players, some dunks, some threes, a cinderella or two. A couple minutes in there’s another instrumental overlaid with dramatic calls from Ian Eagle or Verne Lundquist. You could substitute the footage that fills the first two-thirds of the video with images from any recent-ish NCAA tournament and barely know the difference; the people pulling all this together are not trying to tell a story, or at least not a story that’s any different from last year’s. Then, finally, we see some clips from the championship game precede a coda capped by Jim Nantz saying something scripted and obnoxious about the winning team as the final buzzer of the tournament sounds. The campy music, the whirlwind of clips, the delicious schadenfreude of crying fans of losing teams—we eat it up, even if we know its nutritional value is more or less negligible. But as far as montages go, even those of us who never miss one know that “One Shining Moment” is shit.
Sports montages date more or less to the moment when advertising realized that a savvy balance of subtext and social cues could foster an emotional connection between product and consumer. Just as Don Draper’s genius was realizing that Kodak’s slide projector was not a wheel, but a time machine, media pioneer Roone Arledge saw that sports were not merely sweaty dudes doing various things, but human dramas of sacrifice, glory, greed and failure played out in stadiums and arenas. And, increasingly, on television.
We live in a sports media that Arledge largely created. How the Olympics are broadcast, the concept and central conceit of “Monday Night Football,” the human interest stories that bloat every pre-game show—these are Arledge’s children, one and all. And, to a great extent, the same can be said of the sports montage. With Jim McKay’s narration set over a horn-heavy, Henry Mancini-esque score, The Wide World of Sports opening credits married the moving athletic image and music in a new way. The treatment gave games both grandeur and grandiosity, wringing some emotion from every triumph and failure, swathing it all in a vague but potent significance. This particular artful montage took disparate events—the whole Wide World—and distilled them to recognizable moments. For a man like Arledge, who wanted sports imbued with greater meaning but had a limited broadcast window in which to convey all that, the montage simultaneously multiplied the effect and got everyone there in one artful minute. At its core, and with all apologies to Eisenstein, a great montage is a form of shorthand.
Of course, the same can be said of a lousy montage. The hyperspeed highlights on Sportscenter help with absorbing a full day’s worth of sports—or, just as often, pseudo-news about Tim Tebow—in a very small amount of time. But we’re not really absorbing much: we’ve all watched a game only to see it turned into a mostly unrecognizable collection of highlights slathered with the cornball whammy-bar dives and computer drums that comprise Sportscenter’s soundtrack. Those cobbled-together clips of dunks, hard hits or homers do little to convey the contest’s actual narrative, but this is the quickest of quickie cobble-jobs. Take a string of clips, combine it with the right song, shoot for a running time north of 15 seconds, and in a matter of minutes you can reveal an entire game, tournament or season in a way that may or may not be accurate, but can be evocative all the same. Music is amazing like that, and an artful editorial juxtaposition of sound and image can fill gaps to a surprising depth. It can also tell a story that has little to do with the thing ostensibly being summarized.
A single game or tournament works so well for montage because its definite beginning, middle and end provides an inherent structure. Infusing that montage with a sense of history makes it even better. In 2006, as they have every four years since 1966, England reignited its national delusion that it could win a World Cup. They didn’t, of course, but after England’s ouster in the quarters, the BBC aired a montage that expertly paired player quotes and clips of highs and lows during the tournament with a moody Pet Shop Boys (!) song. That it was ready for air so soon after the match was impressive, but it belied a deep fatalism, too. The BBC didn’t pull this together in a few minutes; they knew this defeat wasn’t a matter of if, but when. And so, in just over three minutes, some expert editing, some strings and some piano delivered an understanding not just of how England lost, but of the weight of expectation the players lived with, and the accompanying misery the loss evoked.
The common denominator in effective montages is hard to name and easy to discern—TNT and the NBA won for their lovely “Forever” montage despite collapsing all of basketball history into the length of one song, because the sentiment was convincing and artfuly expressed; ESPN lost with its ballyhooed end-of-the-millenium “Sportscentury” montage because it was so focused on maximizing Meaningful Moments as to wind up a meaningless, Aerosmith-scored video checklist. A pattern emerges among the great montages: have some (but not too much) ambition; say yes to narrative; good music; great editing. Get that stuff right, and a montage can deliver a visceral pull even to people who barely care about all the events miniaturized therein. On all these fronts, year after year, “One Shining Moment” fails.
CBS approaches its annual college hoops tradition with all the creativity and artistic daring that they bring to Two and a Half Men and CSI: Miami. Each tournament, every upstart and champion, scans more or less identical to the ones that came before because the format is too inflexible to admit any other possibility. We know from watching that each tournament has a different narrative arc, feel and quality of play; every first four days—the maddest stretch of March Madness—are different; every great game or team is its own thing. But, vexingly and predictably, every “One Shining Moment” is pretty much the same—the same song, the same lazy editing, the same emotional notes struck over and over again, resulting in an assembly line product custom-crafted to contain just enough banality not to offend anyone.
That song doesn’t help, to be fair. Music is the glue that holds a good montage’s clips together, and sets a tone and rhythm. And the song “One Shining Moment” is the purest schmaltz, delivering sentiment utterly without subtext; this isn't glue so much as it's just gooey. Luther Vandross, rest his soul, does his best with the clunky lyrics that a CBS Sports producer predictably pairs with achingly on-the-nose visuals. Just because Luther (and, in past years, Teddy Pendergrass and Jennifer Hudson) sings about the blink of an eye, doesn’t mean we need to see a player blinking. But every year, we see that.
Why does “One Shining Moment” persist, then? Because, as little as it adds to the experience, it’s difficult to imagine a NCAA Championship Game without it. “One Shining Moment” has intertwined itself with the pomp and tradition of the NCAA Tournament. The song sucks, frankly. But it is also the sound of March Madness, which decisively does not suck. Memory is the greater part of its persistence; there’s something comforting and reliable about knowing there will be a “One Shining Moment” every year, even if we know that it will be just as maddeningly mediocre as every other year’s. After all, there are people who get excited for commercials during the Super Bowl, too.
“One Shining Moment” also remains because it’s perfect. Not, lord knows, in terms of construction and execution, but perfect for the NCAA. “One Shining Moment” is an institution that’s been around for a long time without ever doing much to justify that existence. One set of sports fans believe it could be scrapped for something so much better. But to another, it represents tradition that they don’t believe needs any improving—these are probably the same people who believe college athletes should be amateurs and the bowl system is working just fine. They may not know much about crafting a thrilling a montage, but CBS certainly knows who it’s making that montage for.