Canned Cheering: Is faking reality the new normal?

The dilemma of fake crowd noises

Due to the pandemic, fans have not been permitted to attend live sporting events, resulting in empty stadiums and eerie silence. Faced with this issue many executives and broadcasters have decided to replace the live audience with cardboard spectators and ‘canned cheer’. The public opinion is split - some find it soothing as it feels more normal, whilst others are outraged, not because they don’t enjoy the crowd noise, but because it is fake. Viewers expect that what they see and hear in sports matches on TV is real and actually happening.

Sports leagues and broadcasters claim that they are trying to make the experience as authentic and ‘normal’ as possible during the pandemic and that they are trying to make fans feel engaged. After all, watching a sports match without the crowd noise feels like watching a training session and not the actual event; the intensity is missing, for both the players and the audience.

There is a whole industry behind the art of fake noise. In the Premier League, chants, as well as sounds of disappointment, were taken from the FIFA video game series and in the US Open, AI was used from IBM to generate crowd noises. IBM Watson created vast sound libraries from authentic crowd sounds going back years. The AI can apply actual crowd reactions to a specific type of moment in near-real-time.

David Andrews, a professor of sports culture at the University of Maryland said “[The television networks] have this imagined sense of what the spectacle should be and how the consumer should experience it, and they manipulate the representations of it to produce that for the consumer, and it’s just taken to the nth degree. Baudrillard would have gone mad at this.”

Jean Baudrillard, a French theoretician, hypothesized that we were moving towards a reality filled with purely stimulated experiences, so that it simply becomes a simulation of reality, just like in the movie ‘The Matrix’. He believed that humanity was becoming a “hyper-reality, a state where the simulated can be more prominent than the authentic and where images and copies can be considered more real than in real life.”

One broadcaster even admitted that this ‘enhanced audio’ is intentionally used to ‘stimulate emotions’ so that people don’t lose interest in watching the sport. Hm, stimulate or manipulate? And who decides what emotions to ‘stimulate’? Is it ok for one person or one organisation to decide the reactions on behalf of masses and impersonate democracy?

Opinions on the manufactured crowd cheers for goals, boos for rough fouls and hums for anticipation when the ball drifts close to the penalty area have ranged from considering them impressive to existentially troubling and even ridiculous. Personally, I found it incredibly amusing, when an umpire reprimanded the ‘crowd’ (aka AI noise simulator) for the high noise levels, saying “Quiet please,” during the recent Roland Garros Tennis Championship.

Using digital sounds in sporting events is nothing new, but recently, under the novel Covid rules, it seems more acceptable. Twenty years ago, CBS used taped nature sounds to enhance the experience of the PGA golf championship, but bird experts noticed non-indigenous bird sounds and were outraged, heavily criticising the broadcasters. Since then, people have adapted, and such practices are nowadays more accepted. While some may like to be soothed by the fake chorus of boos, cheers and whistles, others may enjoy the organic and democratic quality of sports.

Maybe we can use sports to see how ready we actually are to live in a hyper-reality.

Olympia VI