“That a company like Fox will likely work to smooth out this technology rather than scrap it—football season is around the corner, after all—means the virtual fans will likely be getting ‘better’ over time.”
Something like this happened before. Recall how amid protests against the killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore during the 2015 baseball season, a Chicago White Sox/Baltimore Orioles game held in Camden Yards on April 29 resembled something closer to the end of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’eclisse (1962)—it was crowdless. The teams were the only people visible, along with sports photographers popping up around the lower level, in what was widely considered the first “fanless game” ever played in Major League Baseball history. The Orioles decided to play without fans to avoid draining police resources in the midst of the protests, and because there was no other time to reschedule the game. The resulting images were surreal. Orioles announcer Gary Thorne spoke in whispering tones as if to mimic professional golf announcers. After catching the third out to end one inning, then-Orioles star Chris Davis tossed a baseball into the stands to an imagined fan.
While you could argue that a multibillion dollar business continuing a game in what was a ground zero of social and political unrest ignored the bigger picture, the fanless game also showed that even professional baseball was not immune from the reality on the ground. And of course in our current moment the fanless game has become the new normal, illustrating that very same fact yet again. However, Major League Baseball and one of its broadcasting partners are, if not in denial, then unable to accept this new normal without being a little bit weird about it: “Virtual fans” have become a fixture on Fox Saturday Baseball since late July, and the reviews have been mixed at best.
Fox Sports has gone off the beaten path before with its broadcasting “innovations.” Remember when it had “FoxTrax” for its hockey telecast to make the puck glow on screen, because Fox thought Americans would only watch hockey if they were able to more consistently track the puck? But this latest broadcasting quirk puts the channel less in sports broadcasting innovations like instant replay and more into the realm of an internet “deep fake.”
The network has stated the intended purpose for these virtual fans was to distract from the reality that stadiums were empty due to the pandemic. Initial fan reactions were befuddled, noting the inconsistencies of certain camera angles having the virtual fans while other angles did not, resulting in fakes that would appear and disappear even within a single play. These virtual fans are, thankfully, inaudible—with the broadcasts and the stadiums themselves cranking in sounds instead (most notably the Oakland Athletics, who’ve had their most famous supporter, Tom Hanks, record his voice in the role of a hot dog vendor to be played in the Coliseum). Those audio effects are more in the tradition of older media, like a canned laugh track for a multi-camera sitcom, or a pop song that mixes in live-crowd noise to create the illusion of a live song. But there is something more appropriately dystopian about this presentation on the visual side—in the virtual fans, and Fox’s insistence on presenting “them” in every telecast.
Such an event of artificial intelligence in normally human spaces was predicted on television over 30 years ago by Max Headroom, once described as “the world’s first computer-generated [TV] host.” The character’s backstory is established in Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into the Future (1985), a dark, cyberpunk, made-for-television media satire staged in an Art Deco landscape. Investigative reporter Edison Carter (Matt Frewer), while sedated, has his mind recorded by his employer, the evil media corporation Network 23, to create a digitized version of himself—Max Headroom. The success of the TV movie led to an American television series that went for two seasons (1987-88), with Max Headroom also spinning off into an ad man for products like New Coke and appearing on David Letterman. Like the virtual fans we see in baseball, Max Headroom was less uncanny valley but instead so much jankier: with a head similar to a Ken Doll, a molded mane rather than hair, and a stuttering electronic voice that made him sound like a computer-age Porky Pig.
In some ways it’s comforting to see that these beings of technology are hardly perfect. But at the same time, that a company like Fox will likely work to smooth out this technology rather than scrap it—football season is around the corner, after all—means the virtual fans will likely be getting “better” over time. And while it might seem like this effect will only be used to shield the image of empty stadiums until sports leagues are permitted to seat attendees once more, there are worthwhile questions to be asked about virtual fans reemerging as real-people substitutes again. Do these virtual fans fill out future marches? Political speeches? Even concerts? There are so many potential possibilities, some of which should at least give us pause—but perhaps we are too far past the rubicon to effectively protest them? A lot of technology starts as a joke and regardless of the warning cries of a few Cassandras, those jokes beget dark policies and operations that get hastily normalized in the name of power and capital. Fox might not be Network 23-level evil just for introducing the virtual fan, but there are well-founded reasons to find its existence crass, tone-deaf, and unsettling on aesthetic and ethical levels.