The opening line of the narration that begins tonight’s primetime coverage is, “An Olympic Games is an evolving story.” That’s a pretty trite quote, and even if the Olympics lend easily to sentimentality, I couldn’t help by start shaking my head right there. For me, the Olympics are a sporting event. There are stories leading up to it, and after every single event, but during actual competition each sport has its own rhythm and plays out regardless of narrative overlay. It’s only in the editing booth or punching keys with a deadline breathing down a writer’s neck that the sports have narrative force upon them.
I recently reviewed Mark Perryman’s manifesto for idealistic Olympic restructuring Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be. My biggest takeaway from Perryman’s research into the games is how the modern Olympics have evolved into a competition for the possible hosts to prostrate themselves in front of the IOC and give in to their every whim in order to win the bid, then have absolutely no wiggle room to adjust for a plan that might suit their city better. In essence, the IOC controls the very image of the Olympics by making the process so tied to making concessions and hem in any vision of the games that doesn’t line up with that of the shady semi-nation-state.
That’s similar to how NBC treats its primetime coverage. They can shape and determine exactly how to present the games in order to create the most drama—like last night’s women’s gymnastics competition, when the network edited out a Russian mishap on floor exercise that all but guaranteed the Americans gold if they didn’t fall flat on their faces all in a row. This power transforms NBC’s coverage from a sporting event into a reality show. The whole primetime package has been story edited like any other reality program in order to create dramatic arcs from evenhanded raw footage. This is why John Orozco disappears from the men’s all-around coverage after another poor performance on pommel horse, why the German all-around contender is shown right at the end on floor exercise, and why Mexico and Ukraine trade places during the diving highlights right at the beginning. They’re in medal contention, and NBC puts in just enough coverage to hint at the complete story while whipping along at a pace that shows as many Americans as they can feature.
The marquee event of the night should be the men’s gymnastics all-around, but the script is a bit rough for NBC. Japanese favorite Kohei Uchimura — the guy who basically cost Japan a medal before the damn review with cash money in hand — is now painted as the formidable opponent despite his terrible pommel horse routine the other night. We’re just supposed to ignore the misery of the team competition for all three all-around favorites and only hear the taped preamble that tries to dust those problems under the mat. It isn’t just that NBC is trying to write chapters of a narrative; they want people to forget what they wrote just a few days ago and be a jarhead again, waiting for NBC’s story editing machine to fill up with storylines constructed post-event.
I’m an avid Olympic viewer. I’ve been watching a lot of the events online, especially those I know won’t be on the NBC television networks. Even if the overly engaged segment of the population vehemently detests NBC’s Olympic coverage, this dissent isn’t exactly vocal to the people NBC is trying to reach. Going off of Will Leich’s typically astute observations, NBC is letting the social media devotees yell at each other in a vacuum while coasting to the highest ratings for the games since 1996. To go over the numbers quickly: 82% of Americans are on the Internet, 15% of those use Twitter, while only 8% use it daily. Which is to say that most people don’t watch the Olympics the way I do, or many of you do either. NBC’s primetime coverage is their play for the middle, for big audiences who want to latch onto patriotism in watching American competitors no matter what across a narrow selection of events, instead of international displays of greatness in the unpopular events stateside.
Which is why a Ryan Seacrest segment on the social media impact of the games is so astoundingly off the mark. Is this segment supposed to appease that 8% of 82% and validate their devout viewership (it doesn’t), or is it supposed to enlighten the masses off of social media of its dubious importance and make them care about Facebook “likes” on the Michael Phelps page (it doesn’t, they don’t)? I’ve really tried to not be in the business of pursuing hypotheticals or suggesting alternatives to the NBC coverage. But that segment, and basically every other prerecorded bit of human interest story—on American athletes or the South African swimmer who touched out Phelps in the 200M butterfly—left me with one thought: I would rather be watching people winning some fucking gold medals.
I don’t care what sport it’s in. All along the way, through the entire four hours, show at least brief highlights of every single gold medal won that day. You get some exposure for some undervalued events, drop in a line for what cable channel people can watch on or the website for streaming, and then kick back to the highlight coverage. Today there were finals in kayak slalom, fencing (people using swords), rowing, judo, pistol shooting, and table tennis. Are you telling me there isn’t a five-minute sizzle reel of those events better than Ryan Seacrest at a Miami restaurant with the gymnast who wins a bronze medal in the all-around?
This seems like very basic logic. How does NBC not have a ticker running with results from the day on the US Women’s Basketball team and other team sports like the soccer results? Headlines from the day? There should be a Top 10 at the end of the night featuring great plays. Or a Not Top 10. I don’t care if it’s an amazing spike or someone getting hit in the face. NBC’s coverage gets so bad at points that I find myself wishing to a merciful god for coverage in the ESPN vein. That is the lowest of the low. It makes me feel like I’m taking crazy pills; then I take a deep breath, and remind myself once again that NBC is not creating the primetime packages for viewers like me.
As a former diver and gymnast (I quit both in favor of soccer by the time I reached high school), I still get quite a lot of fun out of watching those sports in the Olympics. Synchronized diving is even more entertaining, watching rhythm added to really difficult technical skills. Even if NBC only shows the men’s 3M synchronized finals because the Americans held on for a bronze, I do appreciate whenever they show an event that doesn’t feature Americans as heavy favorites or champions. The Chinese get portrayed as automatons, but they’re just as far above everyone else talent-wise as Team USA is in basketball, and NBC still won’t show anything but a few minutes of highlights for any of those games.
It’s clear that once Orozco and Leyva falter on pommel horse that they’re not gold medal contenders, so coverage cuts away for an exceedingly long time before coming back just after Leyva has fallen to 17th out of 24 competitors after another setback on rings. But his best events are parallel bars and high bar, so after a fine if moderately easy vault, Leyva leaps back into contention with his final two rotations, then gets some help from a faltering Japanese gymnast to snag a spot on the podium.
From diving and the men’s all-around gymnastics final, we get to see a lot of happiness. Americans happy to make the podium, other competitors happy with gold medals, nothing like the crying over silver medals from teens like the Russian gymnasts. I would rather watch someone happy to make the podium over the indignation of getting silver any day. And the best celebration of the night is definitely for Nathan Adrian unexpectedly winning the 100M freestyle over the favored Australian. It’s a short, sweet, exuberant moment on a night when despite plenty of medals for Americans, that particular outpouring was in short supply.
One of the reasons tonight’s coverage felt so unfocused is that there isn’t a hype-worthy event to highlight with an American champion or star. Swimming finals weren’t in big events or with star athletes built before the games, beach volleyball was only notable because of Team USA losing its first set in Olympic competition. Last night’s coverage was buoyed by the women’s team performance carrying the back half of coverage, but with only one gymnast in contention, NBC settles for swimming semifinals instead of finals in other sports, banking on the popularity of swimming to bring in numbers like NFL preseason games instead of events with medals on the line right now.
So yes, I’m as frustrated as many of my peers with NBC’s primetime Olympic packages. But they’re not designed for me, and I can recognize that. I’m happy that everything is online so I can see it exactly how I want to, but it’s incredibly frustrating to watch NBC craft their version of the Olympics out of the actual games occurring in the live streams. These events aren’t like an episode of The Hills to be manipulated into dramatic arcs where there isn’t enough material or jazzed up like Jersey Shore. I refuse to believe that the Olympics can't be presented as a highly entertaining spectacle while maintaining the honor and decorum demanded of this kind of international competition. Right now, it appears painfully obvious that NBC doesn't know how to pull that off.
- The synchronized diving starts with “ready” and “1-2-3” in each language will never cease to be the only cute part of diving aside from Tom Daley.
- One of the few montages that shows field hockey, men’s beach volleyball, rowing, soccer, and other sports was a Coca Cola “moments of happiness” commercial. So other countries exist and other sports are being played, as long as you’re watching a Coke ad and remembering they’re a big-time Olympic partner.
- It’s been said before, but it deserves another mention: if you’re not watching team handball, you’re seriously missing out. This sport is way too fun to watch and it only comes around once every four years. If you can watch online, take advantage.
- Something that didn’t merit coverage tonight in primetime was the burgeoning scandal in badminton, where eight athletes were thrown out for deliberately throwing preliminary matches in order to gain a more advantageous draw for the knockout rounds.
- For anyone playing the medal count world domination game at home, China now leads the medal count by one and sits at 30, with the USA just behind. But I like to count medals in terms of points (3 for gold, 2 for silver, 1 for bronze), which by my count puts China in the lead over the US 73-61.
- Britain finally got their first two gold medals of the games, in rowing and cycling, but NBC’s coverage was especially patronizing in that few minutes of highlight coverage, including Costas saying, “this Bradley Wiggins bloke ought to be knighted by the end of the week,” in the most blasé fashion possible.
- My roommates’ great observation on why they have Ryan Seacrest interviewing gymnasts: they’re the same height.
- Playing in the background during Leyva’s parallel bars routine? Gotye’s “Somebody I Used to Know” for absolutely no reason, since men don’t use music for floor exercise.
- That German gymnast that takes silver in the men’s all-around has an exceedingly German haircut, he could have been wearing a logo-less uniform and everyone wouldn’t known which country he was competing for.