From an entertainment standpoint, the problem facing NBC’s Winter Olympics coverage is almost the opposite of the difficulty with putting together a primetime package for the Summer Olympics. The Summer Games now have 41 disciplines; team sports like basketball or volleyball only hold two events each (divided by gender), while athletics and swimming held 47 and 34 events, respectively, in London. The Winter Olympics only award medals in 15 disciplines, ranging from two to 12 medal events. The local pre-show coverage touted that the Sochi Olympics will award medals in 98 events; London awarded medals in 302.
The Winter Olympics are far less lucrative for NBC, because there’s not only a shortage of American athletes to feature in the nightly primetime coverage, but a dearth of events awarding medals on any given day. I’m a big proponent of some kind of SportsCenter-style medal roundup montage at the end of each day during the Summer Olympics, because there are so many sports and so many events that demand at least some kind of attention for the gold medalists.
But as Bob Costas states in the preamble to tonight’s coverage, voicing NBC’s perspective on the Olympics, the events are there for athletes to “earn chances to be remembered… most of all for their stories.” Not for their accomplishments in competition, but for how those victories punctuate a pre-packaged narrative the network can sell to an audience. That’s a lot harder to do when there’s a dramatically smaller sample size of stories to draw from. Even when I was immensely frustrated with NBC for its 2012 coverage, it was because there were so many events that I wanted to see that weren’t making it into the primetime package, and instead viewers got Ryan Seacrest talking about social media or a puff piece on a gymnast who salvaged a bronze. The Winter Olympics have to stretch out the few events available each night—four of the five medals awarded today made it to primetime, because who wants to watch cross-country skiing—even when guns are involved in biathlon?
So the coverage tonight begins with a light introductory story. None of the American competitors in the men’s 500-meter speed skating event placed, but Dutch identical twins took gold and bronze, and the Netherlands swept the podium after never winning a medal in the event in any previous games. Speed skating is so much more lethargic that its short-track cousin—except for the moments where the camera whizzes along the curve of the rink, accelerating to keep up with the skaters. That’s the only brief moment of beauty in an otherwise tepid introduction to the night, which never had the chance to explain much about the sport, the event, or the Dutch twins who end up on the podium. It’s the first time something that like has ever occurred at the Olympics, but NBC’s coverage suggests that it’s nothing more than a curiosity because none of the Americans placed high enough in the standings to merit more focus.
Like the qualifying coverage of men’s moguls the day before the Opening Ceremony, tonight’s coverage was a bit bland even with medals on the line. The repetitive camerawork follows the same path as the final 20 skiers are narrowed to 12 and then to six finalists. NBC botched some of the editing by showing a run where one of the announcers mentions a Canadian skier whose run in the middle round doesn’t air, but pops up again in the final round. Of the last six skiers, five runs were shown, but it’s clear that NBC edited things down both to show the one American in contention (on the outside looking in) and then the actual medal contenders. (Though the Russian certainly looks like the beneficiary of some home-hill judging.)
There’s an ideal scenario buried in that final six: an American Olympic legacy so entrenched that a former champion comments on the rise of another American athlete succeeding on the biggest stage. But tonight that didn’t really happen. Jonny Moseley announced moguls with Bob Ley, but they mostly focused on Canadian champion Alex Bilodeau, and the relationship he has with his older brother who has cerebral palsy. It’s a heartwarming story, but it still reminded me of this Yahoo! sketch with Patrick Warburton interviewing a luger who tries to resist the standard human-interest style of bending facts to fit some kind of perseverance narrative. The moguls competition is an example of NBC taking the limited number of events, zeroing in on the athlete with the best story, and that athlete coming through with a victory. In my mind, it’s all the better for the viewers when an intriguing non-American athlete wins, but NBC has to be nervous at the lack of marketable U.S. Olympians.
But away from the mountain is the far more interesting story of Viktor Ahn, the newly naturalized Russian citizen formerly known as Ahn Hyun-Soo, a South Korean short-track speed skater who was Apolo Anton Ohno’s chief rival for the past three Winter Olympics. Plenty of athletes compete for countries they’ve never been to due to eligibility in a foreign countries, which means they can attend the Olympics when they don’t make their home nation’s team. But this isn’t simply the story of an athlete with a foreign parent switching in order to compete at the Olympics. This is a South Korean speed skater with a decorated career defecting in order to continue competing because he grew frustrated that his home country didn’t support him, and left him out off the team in 2010. But lest the move be seen only as the Russians paying a boatload of money in exchange for one more bronze medal: The United States attempted to recruit him too.
Short-track skating is my pick for the most exciting Winter Olympics event to watch, other than hockey. I like figure skating just fine, but the jockeying for position and strategic elements of short-track, especially in the 1500 meters, makes it a lot more exciting. It’s like middle distance running or swimming, where there is a definite tactical element, but in short-track heats, advancing to the next round is based on placement in a heat, not by a certain time compared to the rest of the field. Ahn is ruthless in that regard, and makes a much better story than the eventual repeat champion from Canada.
NBC completely drops the ball on what could be a fascinating case study in modern niche sports, but perhaps to stay on the IOC’s good side, there’s not much time devoted to the intricacies of the story. Nobody cares where the guy is from—as long he can become a naturalized citizen and reasonably compete for a medal, it’s like a roster move in American professional sports. That’s another way that the Olympics don’t exactly represent the faux-heroism of amateur athletes that forms the IOC’s marketable image. And though Ahn becomes the second person to win a medal for two nations in speed skating, and Russia’s first in the history of the sport at the Olympics, the strange nature of Ahn’s place on the Russian team is largely glossed over, even by former rival Ohno sitting in the announcing booth.
Even a physically impressive event like the women’s Super Combined fell a little flat without the benefit of a big storyline athlete like Lindsey Vonn. Since she isn’t competing, the narrative breaks down, and NBC’s coverage struggles valiantly to give the layperson a clear of an idea about what’s going on. There are quick nods to the skiers wearing much taller skis designed for speed and power in the downhill portion and shorter skis for agility in the slalom. But the best bits of analysis through the entire night were the instant replays of downhill runs, where the announcers highlighted points where skiers went off the best line, or shifted weight poorly and lost speed. That’s the only instance in which an expert correlated miscues in technique to actual results.
I’m as bored by sports coverage that stretches thin material into a wide swath of airtime, as I would be with re-watching one of the boring seasons of The Real World. The reality-show story editing that goes into these primetime packages doesn’t work when there’s too little interesting material to expand into three-and-a-half hours of television. Tonight featured a bit of wider coverage across sports and less emphasis on American athletes, which is what I wanted from NBC’s Summer Olympics coverage. But based on the way the network bores into each event even semi-suited for a primetime audience, I feel like it’s because there aren’t as many Americans with easily marketable storylines who are also prominently poised to win big events.
Tomorrow night features women’s ski jumping and Shaun White’s attempt at a three-peat in men’s snowboard halfpipe. Those are two events with either a highly recognizable American athlete or an easy storyline to push (first women’s Olympic ski jump event). That’s the NBC Olympics bread and butter, but what that forte needs is for American athletes to win gold medals. As presently constituted, the network isn’t adept at creating compelling television when there’s no patriotic drum to beat.
- Poor Bob Costas: The guy had an eye infection and now it has spread to both eyes. It looks awful.
- I didn’t really like the montage of all the different falls and blunders during the speed skating segment. Bloopers are a way of life in sports, and if those athletes want to compete on the biggest stage, that’s one consequence of failure. But I was still sad that the only way those athletes made it to American viewers was by falling, and the commentators didn’t connect any of that to problems with the ice or anything similarly substantial.
- I’d like to see more information about the conditions for the athletes in comparison to journalists or even just citizens and tourists there to see the events. And I should also say I’m a bit disappointed that NBC is just ceding the ground on covering the other more political topics in-depth to places that don’t have to worry about kowtowing to the IOC.