I’m not sure whether it counts as a major windfall of bad karma that, of all the writers in the TV Club bullpen, I happened to draw the Winter Olympics on the night that Bob Costas didn’t come in for work. Costas, who had expressed his hope that he would “throw a complete game” by anchoring every night of NBC’s coverage, had contracted an ever-worsening eye infection that apparently made him look more and more like the murder victim in “The Tell-Tale Heart”. He was finding it harder and harder to read his own script, and the sight of him was giving small children in the audience nightmares. (What it was doing to the well-baked members of the snowboarding community, I hate to imagine.)
So he reluctantly agreed to sit out one night, with Matt Lauer taking over his chair. Not having seen any of the coverage that Costas did anchor, I don’t know how much of a difference it made. But Lauer, sitting in the spacious NBC command center, which looks like a cross between the lobby of a ski resort and the holodeck of the USS Enterprise, seems to have about as much direct connection to the games as Turner Classic Movies host Bob Osborne has to the set of the movie he’s here to introduce, whose cast consists entirely of people long since dead.
He’s marooned, throwing the spotlight to unseen persons who narrate the action that’s going on someplace else, or sharing a few minutes with such visitors as Mary Carillo, who, because this is not a tennis match, is stuck doing a short feature on the links between figure skating and ballet, which they do at a Russian institution called the Bolshoi. The question lingers in the air: Is figure skating more of an art, or more of a sport? Answer: Like most things that superficially resemble art but are also a lot like something else, it’s kitsch. Anyway, NBC knows that the important thing is that one of the skaters has kinfolk at ringside, one of who is wearing a wild-looking Uncle Sam hat. “We call him ‘Uncle Boris,’” the skater helpfully explained, “because that is his name.”
Most of NBC’s coverage is dead boring in the way that only canned events in a real-time age can be, but the diverting craziness of many of the open-air winter athletes gives the proceedings a slight advantage over the network’s packaging of the summer games. There, NBC, in its efforts to explain why it’s focusing on Americans even when athletes from other countries are winning all the events and generating most of the excitement, tends to go a little nuts with the heartbreak stories of overcoming personal tragedies and families ripped apart. Here, the camera is more likely to just drift away from the real action and fixate on that one member of the U.S. women’s luge team who warms up by putting on her headphones, getting her jam on, and twerking all over the slopes.
That’s Kate Hansen, identified by an announcer as “the Californian who has all the right moves!” That might have qualified as a double entendre if she’d done better at her event. The announcers get very excited that one of Hansen’s teammates, Erin Hamlin, took the bronze in the luge; hell, all of the U. S. competitors “finished in the top 15!” For those so vulgar as to care about how non-Americans are doing, both the gold and the silver are won by Germans. In fact, when NBC first brings up the subject of the luge, the German winner Natalie Geisenberger is already so far ahead of the pack that there’s not much suspense about what follows. Trying to insist otherwise, one of the announcers quotes Geisenberger’s numbers and then adds that he shouldn’t just give her the gold. He seems oblivious to the fact that it’s actually Geisenberger who is giving herself the gold by racking up those awesome numbers.
Before the sun came up, NBC had already decided that the star of tonight’s events would be Shaun White—or, rather, “two-time defending gold medalist Shaun White,” to call him by what the announcers have decided is his full name. White pulled out of an earlier event in order to focus fully on the halfpipe. I found out how that turned out for him early this afternoon, when I checked my email and just happened to notice a news item announcing that he had come in fourth. Luckily, I have some experience with the bubble-protected way NBC packages the Olympics, so when I tuned in tonight and saw the announcers feverishly trying to prolong the suspense over whether White would win a third consecutive gold medal in an event that he’d crapped out on six hours earlier, I knew that I wasn’t having a mini-stroke.
The most interesting thing about the network’s approach now would be seeing how they accounted for the fact that the man they’d pegged as the one to watch didn’t do better. Much was made of the discovery that the halfpipe itself had serious problems: The competitors’ boards kept “chattering” as they tried to navigate it. White was not, in fact, the only star competitor to fall victim to it. Danny Davis, an instantly likable dude with a big, ingratiating smile, wiped out at the end of his run. Davis, an announcer intoned, “falls victim to the slushy flat bottom!” That sounds like a plot description of either a pretty good episode of The X-Files or a very poorly conceived Russ Meyer movie.
In the end, though, the announcers, torn between making excuses for White and giving some credit to the guy who came in first—Iouri Podadchikov, a Russian-born member of the Swiss team—decided to split the difference. (Back in the studio, Lauer actually said of Podadchikov that he had to “give credit where credit is due,” which isn’t something you usually hear people say about the guy who pulled off an impressive, uncontested victory.) White, we had been told, was approaching this event with a laser focus; now, it turned out, Podachikov had come in with “his eyes laser-focused on the prize.” There’s the rub; if White had just laser-focused his eyes, instead of spreading his laser focus too thin by spreading it out across his entire body, it might have made the difference.
As Podadchikov warmly embraced White, and the crowd cheered its ass off, an announcer said that, even though the gold medal had technically been won for Switzerland, “Right now, all these fans know is that that man is Russian-born!” To even consider the possibility that they mainly knew that he was one hell of a snowboarder, and were cheering because of that, would violate everything NBC thinks it knows about why people want to watch the Olympics.