The Opening Ceremonies won’t air until tomorrow, but NBC’s coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics kicked off tonight. It’s not inherently an anticlimactic way to start things, but it’s certainly a curious one. Without a doubt, the reasons for this are economic in nature: While those perusing this site might miss new episodes of Community and Parks And Recreation, NBC will be more than delighted to get eyeballs belonging to non-devotees of those shows watching its programming on a Thursday night. After all, there are far more of the latter than the former. But as we kick off our nightly coverage of the 22nd Winter Olympics, one thing seems clear: NBC’s coverage will likely be judged as much for what they don’t show as for what they actually do.
The various controversies surrounding these Games have been well-documented leading up to tonight’s initial coverage, but that doesn’t mean they are not worth repeating at the outset. Russia’s anti-gay legislation and its recent treatment of stray dogs in Sochi are just two of the many topics casting a pall over the start of the Winter Olympics. When asked about NBC’s planned coverage of the Sochi Games at the most recent Television Critics’ Association press tour, NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus that topics of a political nature would only be discussed if “appropriate,” a word ripe for interpretation. With NBC producing nightly coverage airing hours after actual competition, the network not only has the opportunity to shape athletic events into TV-ready narratives, but also to excise any social context happening just outside the field of play.
One could argue that the Olympics themselves are dramatic enough that any external factors melt away in the face of personal triumph or tragedy. But the Olympics aren’t just a reflection of four years of individual/team training, but a periodic congregation of the world’s citizens on a central stage. Inviting that world to mingle in a country in which certain citizens are deemed legally inferior simply can’t be ignored. It’s one thing for NBC to drape itself in red, white, and blue in order to act as nationalistic cheerleader for competing Americans at the expense of every other country’s participation. That can be nauseating at times, but hardly unique in terms of the self-centric coverage each nation inevitably brings. But to ignore human rights violations and possible animal cruelty because they potentially take viewers out of the glamour and pageantry of the Olympics? That’s another offense altogether, one that goes beyond mere sports broadcasting and headlong into the world of pure journalism.
That’s not to say that NBC will absolutely and positively whitewash Vladimir Putin’s leadership, his policies, his perspectives, or anything else casting a shadow over these proceedings. But it will be the elephant in the room, the aspect no one wants to talk about, the factor that NBC desperately hopes won’t come into play. Not only is that bad world citizenship on the part of those in Sochi, it’s also just bad business for those beaming it into our living rooms. And like it or not, NBC is squeezing in this extra night of coverage to milk as much money from these Games as possible. NBC has every right to do this. They didn’t craft the legislation that created this maelstrom. But they also have a duty as a journalistic entity to cover all facets of these Olympics, even if they don’t fit neatly into a stirring three-minute human-interest montage scored by Bastille.
With all that out of the way: How was the first night of coverage itself? It started off in surprising fashion, with Bob Costas addressing that aforementioned elephant right at the outset of coverage, and promising a segment “within the first hour” featuring experts on Russian culture/history discussing the hot-button topics mentioned above. And to be fair, the five-minute discussion with Vladmir Pozner and David Remnick was interesting while it lasted, particularly in the way both men outlined Putin’s goals of scoring points domestically while simultaneously ignoring the international outcry. It was a clear, smart way of delineating Putin’s primary goals for people who have only been following these controversies in a cursory manner, and the discussion did not pull many punches. “This is a homophobic country,” Pozner said of Russia, noting that Putin’s anti-gay legislation may seem horrifying to some but actually falls in line with the (mostly silent) majority in Russia.
Still, the key take away here is “five minutes,” which constituted the majority of time spent on real-world issues in tonight’s broadcast. Costas promised the pair would be back throughout the fortnight, with some of those appearances featuring lengthier segments in which to more thoroughly discuss issues. But other than a later mention of a possible protest involving Russian snowboarder Alexey Sobolev (whose board featured imagery associated with the once-imprisoned group Pussy Riot), it was all sports, all the time tonight. The promise of future political coverage is smart on the part of NBC, since otherwise tonight’s five minutes might have seemed like lip service done to quell those that vocalized fears that NBC would stay completely silent on the issue.
But while Bob Costas uttering the words “Pussy Riot” was compelling television in and of itself, the overall vibe of tonight’s coverage boiled down to a complete lack of urgency. Getting an extra night of primetime Olympics’ programming will surely help the network’s bottom line, but tonight felt like a false start in terms of actual coverage. Event-wise, two of the three featured sports (slopestyle snowboarding, mogul skiing) were qualifying events in which no one was in danger of actual elimination. This wasn’t exactly the same as the “everyone gets a trophy” mentality that dominates children’s sports, but it did rob the proceedings of any urgency. From a pure coverage perspective, NBC did little in the way of making these sports interesting for the lay viewer. Every run through the respective courses was shot in the same way, with the same cameras, with the same precision. It was professional, but wildly uncreative. Slopestyle in particular naturally lends itself to cinematic camerawork, especially given the gorgeous natural backdrops for the event itself. And yet, after the 30th trip down the mountain, high-definition majesty gave way to standard-definition sameness.
But the third event, figure skating, represents the Olympics’ bread-and-butter. It’s the most popular and arguably most exciting sport of the Winter Games, even if it usually sends me behind the couch due to nerves. (It’s like the Breaking Bad of the sports world that way.) Sochi features the first iteration of the team skating competition, the mechanics of which I was eager to learn. Unfortunately, it took NBC a full hour of coverage to actually explain onscreen what “team skating” entailed. Even after laying out the four components (male individual, female individual, mixed pairs, and ice dancing), NBC could not be bothered to explain how the scoring works, leaving myself and undoubtedly others to piece things together. (The network had no problem breaking down the mogul skiing scoring methodology, which makes this oversight all the more curious.) The announcers were too busy spoiling every upcoming move of each routine to explain strategy involved in the first-ever team skating event.
[Yes, skating announcers always do that “spoiler” thing. It’s not new to NBC’s coverage. But if you sat with someone to watch a movie, and that person had already seen the movie, and that person spent the whole movie saying, “Oooh, this is gonna be great, just wait!” five seconds each time something cool was about to happen, well, you’d eventually punch that person, right?]
The skating itself was as drama-filled as NBC could have hoped, featuring plenty of built-in storylines as well as some incredible feats of athleticism. The heights of Evgeni Plushenko’s performance contrasted sharply with the depths of Jeremy Abbott’s meltdown. Whenever Russian skaters performed, the crowd grew electric, which in turn excited announcers including Scott Hamilton. You could argue the NBC announcing team was overselling the Russians’ performances due to the overall energy, but the Russians were also really damn good. (Especially the one guy who looked like the LARP’ing lead singer from Arcade Fire. He was excellent.) The American team was eliminated once Abbott fell 30 seconds into his routine, but credit goes to NBC for letting strong performances from Russia, Canada, and Japan air all the same. Their 2012 Summer Olympics coverage couldn’t stomach the idea that other countries were any good at sports as well, so bravo to NBC for being more inclusive tonight.
Still, skating took up a little less than half of tonight’s three-hour running time, with the rest of the time dedicated to entertainment-free outdoor events, the aforementioned Five Minutes Of Politics, and a 10-minute closing segment in which Costas pretended like he enjoyed talking to Meredith Vieira about tomorrow’s opening ceremonies. This broadcast will make money for NBC. But it also represented the network stumbling into the biggest two-week period of its calendar year. Without the opening ceremonies to properly set the mood, tonight’s events felt separate from—not part of—the Games as a whole. Snowboarding and mogul skiing are viable, visceral events that felt muted and unimportant thanks to the “no one gets eliminated today” aspects of their competition. And with the exception of those in-studio with Costas, very few NBC announcers made it onscreen, yielding faceless narration to largely uninspiring events. Tomorrow’s opening ceremonies will put people in the proper mood for the Winter Olympics, but NBC will need to do a better job if it hopes to maintain that initial interest over the course of the next two weeks. If it doesn’t, audiences might be too bored with the Olympics to care about the far more important real-world issues happening just offscreen.
- I imagine most of the comments below will be about Costas’ unfortunate eye ailment, so have at it, people.
- There was only one in-depth human-interest segment tonight, featuring snowboarder Jamie Anderson. It was beautifully produced without being too schlocky. Naturally, moments afterwards, she executed the best slopestyle run all day. Had she fallen twice, NBC probably would have shelved that piece.
- The montage of Putin/Obama shots in the lead-in to the Pozner/Remnick segment felt like the first stages of a PPV marketing campaign.
- At one point during the Russian mixed pairs’ performance, the camera focused on the back of a judge’s head for a good 10 seconds, leading me to wonder if my mom was suddenly working for NBC as a camera operator.