The 2014 Winter Olympics: February 13, 2014
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The 2014 Winter Olympics: February 13, 2014

In general, I’ve found NBC’s coverage of the 2014 Sochi games to be a step up over its coverage of the 2012 London games (outside of the Opening Ceremony, which NBC always covers hilariously poorly). Now, this is a bit of a stupid comparison, because the Winter Games are much more TV-sized than the Summer Games, and NBC is basically forced to not be so American-centric because we’re just never going to be as good at the Winter Olympics as we are at the Summer Olympics, and we’ve been spending this one doing poorly at events we’ve often done well at in the past, like speed skating, which is apparently a conspiracy by the uniform design industry. But it’s also gotten a lot better at splitting the Games up amid its many media platforms, and it seems much less concerned about airing stuff live as it happens, on either its cable networks or the streaming site (which is also much improved over 2012). Basically, NBC has either taken some of the 2012 criticism to heart, or it’s just been boxed in by an Olympics where there are fewer big American stories than usual.

However, that means that anyone who watches the Olympics primarily for sports is going to be much more interested in watching the network’s late-night and afternoon coverage, to say nothing of the cable and streaming coverage. The primetime program has now, largely, turned into a carefully edited, carefully packaged sports entertainment show. It’s, in many ways, sort of like if Entertainment Tonight occasionally cut away to sporting events in between in studio segments, but only showed you the highlights of those events. This feeling is only increased by longtime Today show mainstay Matt Lauer having sat in for Bob Costas so many nights. Admittedly, this is going to be cold comfort to the sports fans out there who don’t have access to anything but NBC, but those are almost certainly the sorts of people who will find it easiest not to be spoiled when it comes time for the primetime program.

All of this also means that the primetime program gets to indulge more often in something that the Olympics need to be known for: failure. Outside of a handful of sports, the Olympics are by far the biggest event on any individual sport’s calendar. They come along every four years, athletes train for them with an intensity rarely seen from human beings, and, at best, they get three or four shots at the gold. Most of them get only one or two. (Okay, there’s that Mexican skier who’s been doing this for decades and wears a Mariachi-themed costume, but just ignore him for now.) For as exciting as it was to watch, say, Zhang Hong skate so perfectly as to win the women’s 1,000 meter speed skating gold, it was equally impressive to me to see Jeremy Abbott fall hard in his short program in the men’s figure skating, lie seething in pain for a few moments, then get back up and skate the rest of his routine near flawlessly. He did it not because he had a prayer of winning—the fall and delay pretty much killed those hopes—but because he was at the Olympics, and when you’re at the Olympics, you keep going. (Or, at least, you do it for the Visa commercial that may be made about you someday.)

What NBC’s sports infotainment program understands really well is that the Olympics work best when they become something like an unscripted drama about individuals trying to beat the odds. Thus, failure becomes almost a narrative in and of itself. When NBC rolls out one of its pre-prepared packages about an athlete in the early going or a preliminary round, for instance, you can usually guess that person is going to completely collapse. (This has happened a number of times already during these games. Perhaps the most famous example is from 2012, when the network had oceans of profiles of gymnast Jordan Wieber it was apparently sitting on, only to realize with a sinking dread she wasn’t going to make the all-around finals. It then kept burning it off throughout the games.) It was a pleasant surprise, then, to find that women’s skeleton competitor Noelle Pikus-Pace, making a gigantic comeback after retiring in 2010 and suffering a miscarriage in 2012, was being positioned as the protagonist of a new story entirely: Could she overcome all of that to medal for the first time ever in 2014? She did well enough to finish in second during the first two heats, and that’s enough to increase anticipation about how she’ll do tomorrow during the final two heats. If she had botched those first two heats, then what would have happened? A shortened package? Cutting it entirely in favor of watching Katie Uhlaender show off her sled? The NBC primetime show is playing around with footage it largely already knows how to control (due to all of it having happened much earlier in the day), but it still has to leave lots of room to chance.

This makes even more sense for the winter games than the summer games because the winter games are, in so many of these events, about perfectly executed runs. The tiniest of mistakes on those skeleton runs would drop the racers down several spots, and Pikus-Pace in her second run was trying to gain on those who had jumped out ahead of her on the first run. The same went for that first speed skating race. Yes, the U.S. performed poorly there, but NBC should get credit for sticking with it and for showing all of the moments that mattered, like in the final heat, when a too-close cut-off meant that another skater had to slow just a bit in the middle of a race where time was all too precious, thanks to Zhang’s perfect run. This is an area where NBC’s Olympics coverage is, honestly, pretty good that it doesn’t get enough credit for: Every two years, it needs to get us reinvested in a bunch of sports we don’t really pay attention to the rest of the time. Yeah, it’s much easier to do that in summer, when so many of them boil down to “run really quickly” or “swim really quickly,” but the Winter Games are so dependent on these tiny little things that can be easy to miss, like some of the miniscule errors on Pikus-Pace’s first run that the commentators quickly pointed out. That’s good sports-calling, and I think NBC’s Olympics team is quite good at this.

Of course, the twin attractions of the night were the men’s freestyle skiing slopestyle (where the U.S. swept the podium for only the third time in Winter Olympics history) and the men’s short program. What’s interesting is how one of these events was a decided U.S. blowout (despite some hefty competition from other countries), while the other was one where Abbott fell down and fellow skater Jason Brown’s lack of quadruple jumps pushed him down a few spots (though he’s still pretty close to third). Brown seems like U.S. skating’s best hope for a future star for reasons that my friend Matthew Coulson goes into here, and this was my first time seeing the kid. He’s damned fun to watch, and I hope that he can add some of the raw athleticism to his performances that he already has in artistry. If he can somehow combine those, he’ll go places. (And a bronze medal certainly wouldn’t hurt.)

It makes a certain amount of sense that NBC devoted the most coverage to the slopestyle competition, then. For one thing, it’s a ridiculous telegenic sport (so many of these winter sports don’t play terribly well on TV). For another, the network knew it would provide a go-America capper for the point where many viewers tune out (at the top of the 11 p.m. hour). But it still devoted a lot of time to the short program, where both Americans didn’t finish in the top three and the one major foreign draw—Evgeni Plushenko—had to bow out due to health-related reasons. (Watching him do so was heartbreaking.) And when it came time to watch Yuzuru Hanyu set the new world record with an astonishing performance, NBC got out of the way and just let the man skate. NBC obviously knows which side its bread is buttered on, and it’s going to lead with events with Americans do well. I’m fine with that, so long as the network also acknowledges the wide world of sports out there, the other countries that do well, and the other performers who completely flop. Between its many viewing options and the occasional lack of other options, NBC is beginning to do just that.

Stray observations:

  • So Noelle Pikus-Pace had to recover from a devastating injury where her leg was broken after getting hit by a bobsled, and then a worker at the sliding track today also had his legs broken by a bobsled? Is this a thing Winter Olympians need be constantly vigilant about?
  • If nothing else, Bob Costas needs to return so we don’t have to listen to Matt Lauer say “an historic.” No, Matt. No.
  • One of the skeleton commentators to the other: “You’re living in that skeleton world.” That sounds terrifying.
  • I generally enjoy NBC’s late-night show as well, so I took a look at the first half-hour or so tonight, mostly because NBC had shunted one of my favorites, short-track speed-skating, off to the late-night coverage because the U.S. hasn’t been doing so hot at it recently. But I did get to hear Matt Lauer ask Gus Kenworthy about what he’s going to do with all his new puppy friends. Apparently, Gus thinks he can bring them home with him, which, aw, but also, good luck with customs, buddy.
  • Speaking of the slopestyle, I get why Joss Christensen won, but on a pure “knowing nothing about this sport and watching on TV” basis, I thought Nick Goepper was pretty phenomenal.
  • Two thoughts on the women’s skeleton competitors: Noelle Pikus-Pace looks ridiculously tired. Katie Uhlaender is my new Olympic crush and is apparently the daughter of former baseball player Ted Uhlaender. And she has sustained a lifetime’s worth of injuries, just from skeleton but seems relatively chipper about that fact. Awesome. (Also: Those profiles of Olympians always gloss a little bit too much over just how these people were drawn to these weird sports for my taste, but the ones tonight put a lot of that front and center, particularly with Nick Goepper.)
  • Talk about other events you’re watching below. I, for one, have fallen too far behind on curling coverage, and no matter what NBC does, it seems unlikely to ever make cross-country skiing all that exciting to watch, unless you’re already super into cross-country skiing. (I am not.) It does look incredibly exhausting however. Also, bonus question: Are you having trouble with the streaming player? I remember people complaining about that endlessly in 2012, but I’ve heard very little of it this year.

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