The 2014 Winter Olympics: February 19, 2014
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The 2014 Winter Olympics: February 19, 2014

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The 2014 Winter Olympics

February 19, 2014

Season -, Episode 14

Fred Roggin appears live from NBC’s Connecticut studios to anchor the NBC Universal curling coverage on USA Network. Along with 2010 Olympic Gold Medalist Kevin Martin of Canada, Roggin sets up the day’s action before turning things over to Andrew Catalon and 2010 U.S. Olympic curling lead John Benton, who have provided commentary throughout the tournament. All four seem generally knowledgeable about the sport, and offer commentary that both frames strategy for seasoned viewers and offers important explanation for audiences new to the game of curling. As a Canadian who spent countless hours of my youth watching curling coverage, developing strong relationships to coverage teams that have become Canadian sports broadcasting institutions, the team NBC has put together for this Olympics is not a complete embarrassment to the game I love.

It’s unfortunate, then, that I’ve had so few chances to enjoy live coverage featuring this group of analysts. In order to evaluate this coverage, I was awake at 4am Central this morning for the women’s semifinals between Canada and Great Britain, which aired live on USA. It was the only live curling to air today—while NBC Universal channels aired all semifinals at some point, culminating in the men’s semifinal between Canada and China, none but Jennifer Jones’ victory over Great Britain’s Eve Muirhead was covered as it was taking place in Sochi. It was the only timeslot in which NBC aired live curling throughout the tournament, despite the morning and evening draws in Sochi both happening at more reasonable hours (12 a.m. and 10 a.m., Eastern). It will also be the only timeslot in which NBC will air live curling of any kind through the end of the Olympics, as even tomorrow and Friday’s gold medal games—for the women and men, respectively—will be tape delayed to 5/4c.

And, as a Canadian, all of this is inconceivable (and yes, I know what it means).

I want to acknowledge up front that, as a critic, I understand the logic behind NBC’s decision. With hockey clogging up MSNBC and USA, and NBC Sports Network tied up with the marquee women’s short program in figure skating, NBC made the calculated move to shift most of the curling to a period in the day where there would be no other live events. NBC has also shied away from using CNBC—the only other channel NBC is using for Olympic coverage—during prime stock market hours, ensuring the network’s function as a financial resource remains intact over the course of the games. While NBC pulled out all the stops for the lucrative summer games, allowing a sport like tennis to take over an entire channel (Bravo), the reality is the winter Games are a less lucrative proposition, and whatever reality content repeating on Bravo as live curling takes place likely draws a stronger rating.

However, crowding out all of this industrial logic is pure, national logic. In Canada, curling is a sport with a strong broadcast tradition, with live coverage of every draw of men’s and women’s national championships, world championships, and even general bonspiels (which, yes, is what curling tournaments are called). The idea of airing a gold medal curling match four hours after it’s been completed would mean riots in the streets, and the idea of doing it twice in two days would risk sending the country into a destructive spiral from which it might never escape. Even if we excuse my hyperbole, the fact remains that curling is a marquee event in Canada, and its gold medal finals being aired anything but live goes against all of my experiencing growing up in the country.

When I agreed—okay, begged—to write about NBC’s curling coverage for my first Winter Olympics living in the United States, I knew it would be different. Although curling has taken up residency as a Winter Olympics novelty, it will forever remain a novelty unless the Americans can field a competitive team in both events. Both Erika Brown and John Shuster entered competition in Sochi as unlikely contenders for medals, and both lived down to their billing, finishing in 10th and ninth place respectively (out of ten teams). While Pete Fenson’s bronze medal in 2006 gives hope, curling is a game that moves quickly. The United States has struggled to remain competitive in the sport on the world stage—so much so that Shuster won the right to represent his country at the Olympics, but had to travel to Germany to compete to earn the country a spot in the tournament. If he had lost, there would have been no American team competing in men’s curling at these Olympic games.

Despite this, however, part of me thought NBC would embrace the complex web of narratives intrinsic to Olympic curling. Without a narrative, curling can be a strange game. Although I would argue its focus on strategy and tactics makes for a dynamic viewing experience, the reality is it’s people throwing stones down a sheet of ice. To connect with the game, the stories of the curlers are crucial, and convince people to invest in hours of coverage. These are stories like Jennifer Jones, who has been one of Canada’s most competitive curlers for a decade, and who has become infamous both for her incredible shot-making and for engineering her team to increase its competitiveness at the expense of personal relationships. She has also, despite winning four national championships, historically struggled in international competition, winning only a single world title and failing twice—in 2006 and 2010—to qualify in Canada’s Olympic curling team despite dominating the sport over that period (winning national titles in 2005, 2008, 2009, and 2010). Her compatriot Brad Jacobs is comparatively new to the international scene, but arrives as Canadian champion and world championship runner-up, looking to earn Canada its third straight gold medal in men’s curling.

Even if we go beyond the “home” of curling, there are stories like David Murdoch, former world champion, entering his third Olympics as the skip for Great Britain and hoping to finally earn his first medal. He’s joined by compatriot Eve Muirhead, a curling prodigy and defending world champion who is looking to build on a disappointing finish in Vancouver in 2010 (when, to put this “disappointment” into context, she was just 19 years old). There’s also Switzerland’s Mirjam Ott, twice a runner-up in 2002 and 2006 and in search of the Olympic gold that would cap off a storied international career, along with the defending Olympic gold medalists and world champions—in women’s and men’s, respectively—from Sweden. Combine with the surprise success of the Chinese men’s team under the guidance of former Canadian champion Marcel Rocque, and you have eight semifinals teams with stories to tell. They are stories that have been building for four, eight, or even 12 years, and stories that are intrinsic to why I love this sport and consider it so compelling.

It’s also why my experience watching curling during these Olympic games has been so frustrating. It’s not simply that live coverage was not available on broadcast, which bothers me on principle but makes logical sense. It’s rather that the solution to this lack of broadcast curling, the livestreams available to cable subscribers through NBC’s Live Extra service, have failed to capture what makes curling such an enjoyable sport. Although a few of the International Olympic Committee broadcasters offering commentary on the feeds have a basic knowledge of curling strategy and the players involved, others sound as though they’ve been given a fact sheet about curling minutes earlier—at times, they raised the question of whether their goal was to provide descriptive narration for the visually impaired, describing with minute detail what was physically happening without any explanation of how, or why, or what it meant for the rest of the game. Some commentators would completely misrepresent the intended goal of a shot, while others would have no idea how many points were being scored despite having explained the way scoring works five times already (since it was one of the details on the fact sheet). There was no sense of the stories, replaced instead with the most basic form of description.

The NBC broadcasts are generally better, featuring more detailed commentary and even some on-site reporting from Trenni Kusnierek. It’s true that Catalon is not the most attentive broadcaster (See: Exhibit A, Exhibit B), and Kevin Martin—a Canadian curling legend and two-time Olympian—is not exactly a born analyst, but the coverage at least touches on the appeal of the game. At the same time, however, it also willfully mangles it in the interest of commercial broadcasting—watching the USA feed, I was shocked to see NBC cut to commercial in the middle of ends, missing out on shots that are crucial in setting up the end for each team. There were multiple ends where they cut to studio for analysis and then rejoined an end that was already halfway over, leaving viewers to guess at how the rocks ended up in the formation they did. Although the quick speed of play and the commercial imperative of these channels might result in some missed shots, minimal effort was made to fill the audience in, as NBC had determined that those rocks didn’t matter.

In thinking about my frustration with NBC’s coverage, it made me wonder how other ex-pats feel when a sport beloved in their country—like say, for instance, long-track speed skating in the Netherlands—is filtered through the lens of commercial broadcasting imperatives. I imagine they’d also be frustrated with the lack of live coverage, and in commentators who aren’t knowledgeable about their skaters’ stories, and who fail to capture their excitement for the sport when communicating with a much broader audience. I imagine they also think wistfully of their own broadcasting teams, their equivalents to TSN’s Vic, Linda, and Russ (seen here with Ron Burgundy during the Canadian Olympic trials) or CBC’s Mike and Joan (a less accomplished pairing currently covering the Sochi Games in Canada, but far superior to anything on offer south of the 49th parallel), reflecting with nostalgia for the land where curling took precedence over all but hockey where the Olympics are concerned.

It’s likely that most American viewers who want to watch curling have been content with NBC’s coverage, especially if—unlike me, at the current moment—they are working during the day and forced to timeshift (and unconcerned about what happens in the parts of the game they’re not allowed to see). It’s possible that the livestreams that drove me crazy gave new viewers some meaningful insights, and pushed them to search out narratives being obscured by the generic commentary. It’s probable, even, that as a diehard curling Canadian aficionado living in the United States and staying up late/getting up early to stream round-robin curling matchups, I represent the smallest minority imaginable. And yet, watching dozens of hours of curling over the past week has reiterated for me how broadcasting frames sports for consumption, and how those who are “fans” of Olympic sports contend with their niche competition’s moment in the spotlight. When you’ve spent years following World Cup results in bobsled, or learning the stories of more than just the Americans competing in the biathlon, it is inevitable that you will see a version of your sport that reduces, obscures, and at times misrepresents what you love about it in the interest of commercial broadcasting.

Curling deserves better, but so do most sports. All we can do is make our case, and hope those who are curious will dig deeper and discover the sport and not NBC’s version of it.

Stray observations:

  • But what about primetime, Myles?: I was given carte blanche to focus on the curling competition, but I watched the primetime broadcast, and was pleased it was fairly uneventful, making me feel better about not focusing on it—NBC milked the Ladies’ short program in figure skating for all it’s worth, and while I’m sure they wish there was an American in the top group, it looks like a shootout between Kim, Kostner, and Sotnikova.
  • Of NBC’s editing choices during Canada/Great Britain (which cable subscribers can watch back here), the fact that they didn’t show the first six stones of the ninth end—that is the penultimate end—is the most ludicrous. That was a crucial point in the game, and it just got completely ignored.
  • This was a huge day for Canada—if both curling teams had lost their semi-finals, and if Canada hadn’t advanced in hockey, it would have gone down as one of the darkest days in Canadian Olympic history. As it stands, both Canadian curling teams will play for gold tomorrow and Friday (live at 8:30/7:30c online), while Canada faces off against the United States in Friday’s semi-final.
  • One thing you definitely miss on the livestreams: the glamor shots of waves lapping up on the shore at Sochi.
  • On the subject of commentators, I definitely would have preferred David Attenborough over any of the IOC host feed broadcasters.