I love a good sports narrative. There have been some fantastic stories to come out of the Olympics in the past, and these stories drive our collective investment in this largely beautiful event. But NBC isn’t doing a great job mining for narratives this year. It’s significant that the biggest stars to come out of the Olympics so far have been the few whose stories were handled well. Missy Franklin and Gabby Douglas have come off really well, for example. They are both incredibly appealing girls, but also, the way their stories have been told has been superior to the narrative around, for example, Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps.
Really, the secret is that the Olympics are in fact incredibly boring. There are rounds and rounds of qualifications for everything, hundreds of countries, sports we’ve never heard of, and rules we cannot even begin to guess. It’s a monument to over-complication, an idealistic remnant about as anachronistic as the League of Nations, and of course, a bureaucratic nightmare. NBC does not have an easy task, stitching all these moving parts together. Narrative is the reliable grease to keep the machine running. We require the stories to care at all about this esoteric system of games. But on a night like tonight, when there isn’t quite enough material to fill its three-and-a-half hours of primetime real estate, NBC gets a little desperate, and that’s when you begin to see the gaps in its strategy. All of a sudden it’s the midpoint of the Olympics. Major stories have already peaked and closed; somehow, it feels simultaneously like the Olympics have always been on, forever, and that they will be over before we can blink. Douglas and Franklin have become household names over the course of a few days, Phelps has retired, and athletes famous for things outside the Olympics, like the tennis stars, have already claimed their medals.
I have no doubt that NBC could find something wonderful to report. But it seems to be uninterested in doing so. No primetime coverage at all was given, for example, to the women’s water polo team, or the sudden popularity of handball, or the fact that the judge that made the time call for that hotly contested fencing match was a 15-year-old volunteer. That wonderful sense I used to get of watching the Olympics—of feeling like I was learning about a whole different world and so many different subcultures, with Bob Costas as my guide—has been replaced with feeling like I have watched all of this before, and I cared more the first time.
This feeling was cemented with NBC’s choice, at about 9 p.m., to run a James Bond segment. Obviously. Because it’s London.
I like James Bond. I just don’t think any American who is watching the Olympics doesn’t have a passing familiarity with James Bond. NBC leans heavily on treacly, montage-y pre-produced segments in general, but especially for primetime, especially for sports, and especially especially for the Olympics. Sometimes, these segments make sense. The Mary Carillo investigation of the legend of James Bond made no sense (except, of course, in a world where content decisions are made by time available instead of relevance to, like, anything else happening).
That was the cornerstone of what I found to be a pretty lame night of programming. The events that are engaging will always be engaging; the production around most of it was really disappointing. I really think I’d rather watch Tumblr react to things from here on out.
It’s pretty easy to see how NBC structures an evening by how it lays out its segments. Tonight, the evening opened at 8 p.m. with a visit to South Africa, the home of Oscar Pistorious, the paralympian who qualified to compete in the “real” Olympics. There’s no way that story isn’t great, and NBC knows it. They interview a prosthetics expert at MIT—an amputee himself!—and get some footage of Pistorious with underprivileged children to seal the deal (I said “awww” at the end. So, consider the deal sealed). Then, a few hours later, the network aired Pistorious’ attempt to qualify for the men’s 400-meter (he did not qualify). Not only did NBC get us to care about him before he competed, but it also justified airing a bit more of non-American randomness to an American audience by adding the narrative. Lest I sound absolutely too cynical, I really do appreciate sports narratives, and there’s no way this story isn’t incredible and awe-inspiring. But it’s hard not to see the strings NBC is pulling behind the scenes—in part because it doesn’t try very hard to hide them, or even to do a terribly good job making us care. My problem is not that we’re being manipulated, to be frank. It’s that we’re being manipulated badly.
In that vein, NBC placed audience favorite women’s gymnastics front-and-center in primetime, showcasing the vault competition, with favorite McKayla Maroney positioned to win gold. (Maroney, of course, had a produced segment to accompany her solo appearance in the Games.) Unfortunately, she did not, taking a hard landing on her second vault and so losing first place to a Romanian gymnast. One of NBC commentators added, as the cameras were enthusiastically zooming in on Maroney’s stoic face, that he probably overused the word “unbelievable,” but this was really, actually, “unbelievable.”
The other reliable audience favorite, right before the vault, was women's beach volleyball quarterfinals with Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings. The two women are riveting to watch. No segment, but I’m sure that NBC is sitting on some pre-produced segments for their semifinal or final match. There’s a lot to mine in the relationship between the two women (who apparently attend therapy together to work on their relationship) and their journey through three Olympic games.
And cut in between vault and volleyball was track-and-field, most notably, the men’s 100-meter dash, which Usain Bolt so memorably took in Beijing. He takes it in London, too, even though NBC really tries to convince us that his teammate Yohan Blake might be some serious competition. (They travel to Jamaica in that segment, filming the men practicing with each other and saying intense man-athlete things.) I actually bought it, too, but in the end, Bolt smokes everyone, leaving Blake to take the silver.
And the last major event of the night was the women’s 400-meter, in which USA's own Sanya Richards-Ross came back from a defeat in Beijing in 2008 to take the gold medal. No segment for this one, though there was a lot of commentary by both the interviewers and commentators on her extremely impressive bling, which is kind of like a narrative, right?
- Costas felt the need to bracket the Pistorious segment with something about bionic athletes, which seemed a little farfetched, and also, I don’t know, maybe insane. His “banter” with Carillo was so awkward as to be painful.
- I am really into the commercials in this Olympics. They’re just so good. They’re so much better than any other sporting events’ commercials. That Nadia Comaneci commercial, right? Right??
- How upset are you for McKayla Maroney? (The answer is: VERY.)
- I was upset not to see any recap of the Federer/Murray tennis match, which must have been incredible to watch.
- Was it hard to watch this considering that I could have been watching Newsroom, Breaking Bad, or the run-up to the Mars rover landing? (The answer is: RATHER.)
- When the commentators for women’s 400-meter hurdling say things like, “this athlete is the future of American women’s 400-meter hurdling,” I find it very funny.