At the start of NBC’s Sunday night prime-time coverage of the London Olympics, the words “Recorded Earlier” flash onscreen, and then, after everyone in front of a TV set yells, “No duh!” the network cuts from the powdered snare drum that is now Bob Costas’ face to something that’s actually pleasant to look at: the women’s synchronized diving competition. The diving sequences were one of the highlights of Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympiad, with bodies flying, sailing, arching in the air, and there are a few blissful minutes here where a viewer can just sit back and watch athletes march out to the end of the board, take a second to compose themselves, then bounce up in the air and spin and roll in mid-air before slicing into the water, their movements perfectly mirroring each other.
Then it all starts to break down. The cameras and the announcers fixate on one pair of divers, Kelci Bryant and Abby Johnston. They’re not the only ones who are separate from the pack: The announcers keep mentioning that the Chinese divers are the most fearsome and hard to beat, and as the rounds go on, the Canadian team seem to be getting just enough extra attention to tell you there’s something notable about them. But it’s Kelci and Abby NBC can’t get enough of. The camera follows them around between dives, picks out their families in the stand, and finally, as if trying to impress upon you just how interesting they are, throws in a short film about the mysterious bond between them, as if they were preordained by God to someday jump in a swimming pool together. Since the best evidence the researchers could find for this claim is that, even before they met, they both liked to collect rubber duckies, the upshot of all this is to leave the viewer confirmed in his suspicion that athletes are interesting when performing athletics, and that’s pretty much it.
The announcers keep hammering away at how hard the Chinese divers have worked to get to where they are, with the faint suggestion that this amounts to an unfair advantage, if not outright cheating. In the end, the Chinese win, which, the announcer says disdainfully, sure won’t surprise anyone, but Kelci and Abby come in second—they get to stand on the podium! Again and again, tonight, an announcer will do his or her level best to make “getting to stand on the podium” sound like something worth beaming with national pride about, but no matter how hard they try to sell it, it still sounds like hearing the most beautiful girl in your class tell you that she does love you, like a brother. (As for the Canadians, they come in third, and one of them, Emile Heymans, becomes the first woman diver, and the first Olympian from her country, to win four medals at four consecutive Olympic games, which may help to explain why she and her partner got those all-important 10 extra seconds of screen time.)
I understand the thinking behind broadcasting events that happened hours ago in prime time, but it’s still amazing how fast it goes from being surreal to just aggravating, listening to the announcers try to maintain the right balance between suspense and omniscience, and spending a lot of time talking about what might yet happen when they know what already did, in fact, happen. When the action shifts to the women’s 100-meter butterfly, the camera fastens into U. S. swimmer Dana Vollmer, and a voice excitedly speculates that “This could be her Olympic golden moment!”
Now I just feel as if I’m being messed with, and while I haven’t paid any attention to the games all day while waiting to watch this broadcast, I do have my phone. One quick tap on the Wikipedia app later, I know that Vollmer not only won the gold but broke a world record while she was at it. Knowing this in advance actually did nothing to make the race less exciting, which is more than I can say for listening to the action I was watching described to me by Rowdy Gaines, an Olympic gold medalist and seemingly nice guy who just happens to have one of those voices you want to slap the shit out of. (Thank God, though, for the underwater cameras, which captured wonderful footage of the swimmers seen from below, their powerful bodies undulating and they propel themselves through the water.)
Grinning in triumph, Vollmer quickly establishes herself as one of the stars of the evening. Another is Ryan Lochte, who doesn’t really exude star quality tonight but who, thanks to his having kicked Michael Phelps’ ass the day before, NBC has decided we’re now stuck with. Lochte comes in second in the men’s 200-meter freestyle semi-final, and the announcers chose to go on at such length about how this performance, and his decision to settle for second rather than try to pull out something extra in the final moments, demonstrated his special “smarts” as a swimmer that they almost seem to be calling Paul Biedermann a dumbass for coming in first. Stranger things are said in the course of saluting American athletes for their peerless achievement in finishing not-first.
The woman interviewing Alison Schmitt after a squeaker of a meet asks her, “How did you keep pace with Camille Muffat that entire race?” Schmitt decides that it might appear rude for her to give the correct answer, which is, “I didn’t keep pace with her the entire race, which is why she’s getting the gold, and I’m getting the silver.” Puffing up the 100-meter breaststroke, the announcers chose to depict it as a mythic grudge match between the American Brent Hansen and Japan’s Kosuke Kitajima; Kitajima had won this contest twice before, and Hansen talked as if he made it his personal mission in life to make sure that he didn’t get to make it three. In the midst of building up this powerful rivalry, which Kitajima gives no sign of knowing about, the announcers happene to burp the name of the South African swimmer Cameron van der Burgh, and the fact that they’d even bothere to acknowledge the existence of an athlete who is neither American nor acknowledged to already have the gold medal in the bag is a clear-cut sign that van der Burgh will be going to bed happy tonight. He gets the gold, Kitajima finishes out of the money, and Hansen tells NBC that the prize he was holding was “the shiniest bronze metal you will ever see!”
As the evening winds down, the action shifs to the gymnastics hall where the qualifications are being held. NBC is especially taken with a young American named Gabby Douglas, because “She’s just got that smile, she laughs and she jokes around.” While the announcers keep paying tribute to Douglas’ bubbly, irrepressible personality, the young lady in question persists in looking as if she's waiting to hear from her attorneys how the audit is going and whether the I.R.S. is prepared to be reasonable or if they're using the phrase “make an example of her.” (NBC finally throws in the towel and runs a film they’ve made, full of shots of Gabby smiling ear-to-ear; every frame of it could have been subtitled, “In happier days.”)
She has reason for concern. The qualifications are to decide which two, count ‘em, just two members of each team will participate in the finals. Gabby goes in with pretty good numbers, but manages a painful-to-watch landing cock-up in her floor routine. Then another American gymnast, Jordyn Weber, does her floor routine, messes up a landing in a way that's less painful to watch than Gabby’s screw-up, but has worse numbers all around and is done for the year. Some sadist in the directing booth manages to get a composition in which Gabby is interviewed about what she has to look forward to in the finals, while Jordyn is standing right behind her, practically crying on her shoulder.
Back in the studio, Bob Costas and Bela Karolyi are talking about the rule that forces countries to drop gymnasts from the finals even if they’re more gifted than some who get to compete from different countries with a less impressive talent pool. Bela, though his English still isn’t quite ready for prime time, growls angrily enough to make it clear how he felt about it. (No offense to Bela, but did it not occur to anyone on this graphics-happy production that some subtitles for Bela might be helpful?) So long as Costas and Bela were in a mood to be pissed, I hoped that they might have a discussion about whether TV news crews who humiliate and torture teenage girls on the air for the sake of a grabber of an image ought to be stoned in the village square. But perhaps they were pressed for time.
Before we sign off for the night, a little history: The golden age of TV coverage of the Olympics was in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, when the games were the province of ABC, during that time when Roone Arledge was redefining, and dissolving, the borders between sportscasting, TV news, and entertainment. ABC helped make stars out of international figures such as Jean-Claude Killy, Olga Korbut, and Nadia Comaneci, and they riveted people to their TV sets, culminating in the blanket coverage of the 1984 Los Angeles summer games, which ate up 180 hours of network time. (That was more than 100 hours more than the previous titleholder, the 1972 Olympics, which turned into a hard-news event—but was still left in the hands of Arledge’s sports division—when Palestinian terrorists took Israeli athletes hostage.) NBC, which took over the franchise in the summer of 1988, seemed to be cursed at first, and that year’s Seoul Olympics was a TV dud. (The network had successfully bid for 1980 summer Olympics—the one that the U.S. boycotted, ultimately leaving them with nothing to cover.)
But by 1996, NBC had hit upon a commercially winning formula. It amounts to not just dispensing with “live” coverage in the classic ABC/ Arledge sense, but dumbing down the product and playing to American chauvinism: It’s assumed that the viewers have no interest in discovering a new sport they might become enthusiastic about (the way Olympics coverage of years past got Americans interested in women’s gymnastics and soccer) or rooting for anyone not born in the United States, or even much in sports for its own sake. Everything is reduced to a story, and the focal point of every story is whoever’s American; if somebody else performs an incredible feat at the games, this is relevant only because of however it affects the dreams and rankings of some American. (Tonight’s coverage of the 400-meter freestyle relay, in which Lochte came up short again, with the French trouncing the Americans, was mainly an excuse to remind everyone how much cooler it felt four years ago, when the Americans kicked the French team’s ass.)
NBC has always had a handy answer to complaints about the nature of its Olympics coverage: They air the games to get ratings, and they assemble their coverage in a way designed to get as many people as possible to tune in. (And so what if one can only infer from the results that they think that the highest number of likely viewers are morons.) But how much longer is this going to work? People who actually care about the games have too many other ways to watch them now. The increasing irrelevance of NBC’s packaged coverage became very clear during the opening ceremonies, when Costas and Meredith Viera, who seemed almost proud of their inability to comment on or even comprehend the political, cultural, and historical themes running through Danny Boyle’s pageant, were swamped in real time by all the people mocking them, and having a meaningful discussion about what they were seeing, on Twitter and other social media. But NBC can’t seem to imagine a different way to cover the games, and yet they’ve already paid for the rights to them into the next decade. That curse might be alive and well after all.
- Tomorrow night, Donna Bowman will be here to walk you through Monday’s festivities. T.G.I.M!