Chess on TV

The potential for chess on television is quite an important topic, which makes it all the more disappointing that there hasn’t actually been any constructive discussion about it. Sometimes there are isolated articles, or rather not even articles but simply paragraphs touching on one question or other, while not commenting on what’s been said before. I’ll commit the same minor crime, but I’ve already thought up a justification. I don’t recall anything that’s recently been written on this topic and, in general, “a Chukchi man isn’t a reader, a Chukchi man’s a writer” [referring to a popular Russian joke], in the sense that this Chukchi man isn’t a journalist but a player.

I’m going to write a series of three articles – one analytical, one optimistic and the other pessimistic (after all, if I wrote it all in one go I’d have to come up with another topic). In the first I’ll look at the general issues surrounding promoting chess on TV. In the second I’ll try to describe a specific chess product – I think it’s possible to do that. In the third part I’ll try to explain why it’s not worth counting on television as a fabled Eldorado which is going to shower us with millions of advertising dollars.

I must immediately confess that this is unfamiliar ground for me, and I’m risking making factual mistakes. In particular:

- Due to my age I don’t recall how television covered the PCA-Intel Grand Prix and I don’t know what viewing figures it got.

- I haven’t seen a single one of the Makarychevs’ programmes on NTV+ (a Russian satellite TV channel) and again, I don’t know their figures.

- I don’t know what the goal was for the organisers of the “Golden Blitz” tournament and whether they achieved it; did they plan to repeat it, and if so, why didn’t that happen?

- And in general, I’ve only got a vague idea of the laws that govern television work.

Therefore it’s not clear why I’m getting involved at all, but someone needs to fill the vacuum. That brings an end to this prolonged introduction.

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When people talk about bringing chess to TV screens the implicit assumption is usually that the task of the chess world is to create a watchable chess product and thereby attract interest from television. The most frequent example is: “games at the classical time control won’t be shown on television, so that means we have to reduce the time control”.

But however watchable the event is it’s going to require additional work before it’s shown on TV. For a worthwhile broadcast you need to have a few cameras, the ability to switch between shots, to display additional information on the screen, and to fill the breaks with some sort of interviews and so on. All of that requires material and, perhaps even more importantly, organisational resources. Meanwhile, chess finds itself so far down the list of priorities of any television station that it’s quite hard to expect such resources to be provided. Even a journalist who’s a genius might not be enough if you’ve only got one camera and a cameraman, but they simply won’t provide anything more.

Given that situation you need a TV station manager or a well-known journalist who loves chess so much that he’s willing to risk his own reputation to push for the serious organisation of a chess broadcast, and if that fails there won’t be a second attempt. You either need that or to have a spectacle that makes the journalists who witness it gasp and rush to tell their bosses that they can shift the English Premier League to the early hours of the morning.

The more likely scenario is that these problems will be resolved by an event sponsor or specialists he’s invited (perhaps that was how it was with the Intel Grand Prix) but that, in general, fits into the framework of the proposed approach.

One way or another, if the chess world only takes care of the chess side of the question we’ll have to wait until someone does the television part of the work for us.

Instead of that, in my view, in order to break through onto TV we need to create a direct television product. That means an event for which broadcasting it on TV is one of the main goals, with a design concept for how to broadcast it – what exactly the viewer should see and hear. The minimum amount of effort should be required by the TV channel, and ideally they should simply provide airtime.

For example, when NTV buys the rights to show the Champions League they don’t send their own cameramen to the match. And the following “Match Review”, as I understand it, is something they also get ready-made – they only need to add commentary. True, I don’t know how things work with matches in Russia.

If you adopt such an approach then the question of the time control is no longer so critical. Given that it’s a separate project you can choose any time control. It’s the same with the event format, the dress code, and so on. A nice additional benefit will be the possibility of offering the product to a few channels simultaneously.

I’ll list the main issues that need to be resolved when creating such a product.

1) Time control. Blitz, in my view, is better than rapid, as it’s only with such a time control that there won’t be 5-10 minute pauses. My choice would be 5 or 4 minutes plus two seconds a move. But that’s only my personal opinion.

2) Event format. Knockout appears to win hands down.

3) Broadcast (live or recorded) or a series of programmes? (By a series of programmes I have in mind something like poker programmes, in which past tournaments are shown gradually over the course of a week or two). It’s a very hard choice, and I don’t have a simple answer. Both options have their pluses and minuses, which I’ll perhaps talk about in the second article.

4) The regularity of the events. This is also an important question. However wonderfully you broadcast, for example, the World Blitz Championship, everyone will have forgotten about it before the next championship – you need to maintain the viewers’ attention. But the more events you hold, the more it’ll cost.

You can come up with a lot more questions, but the most important is undoubtedly:

0) What’s the intended audience? My response – everyone who even once in their life has held chess pieces in their hands, even if they only have a vague recollection of how the pieces move, even less of how to castle long, and seeing you capture en passant they think you’re trying to cheat them.

On paper that all doesn’t sound too bad, but where will you find the money for a “separate project”, and especially one where you need to fully organise the filming? If such a question is posed then it means there’s already an answer ready :)

Firstly, let’s divide expenses into “chess” ones (prize fund, the venue and so on) and “television” ones – the filming itself.

In any case the chess expenses are inescapable, regardless of whether you make a “television product” or simply a “watchable tournament”. There was also an implicit hint that the World Blitz Championship might be part of the project, and in terms of status it should be its crowning moment – and given that it’s already being held at the moment there shouldn’t be any extra expenses. A possible relatively cheap option for organising interim tournaments will be given in the next article.

Now on television expenses: the event produced should be such that the revenue from the TV broadcast is at the very least greater than the costs of filming i.e. the filming process should produce a profit – and in such a case it would be odd to give it away to someone else.

The time’s now come to describe a specific project, but that will have to wait until after the World Cup. For now I’d be glad if someone could enlighten me about the Intel Grand Prix, NTV+ and Golden Blitz. The latter interests me as it might have been an attempt to create such a product.

Until next time!

Comments

Chess on TV

I think that one thing that should be implemented would be to show on screen the computer evaluation.

I believe one reason for the TV success of online poker is that it shows the probability of winning the pot that each player has. This makes it easy to understand even for non-poker players.

Similarly, a computer evaluation with a color-coding of the moves like they do on Chessbomb would make it easier for the general public to judge if a player made a good move or a blunder.