Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Live On Tape

NBC broadcasts the Olympics in prime time, showing the big events of the day on tape long after they've been held (and streamed by NBC on the Internet) and with Bob Costas pretending it's live, given his choice of tense for his verbs.  In between, you have live coverage of lesser sports in the daytime on the NBC broadcast channel and NBC's various sister cable channels, the occasional athlete profiles, and human interest stories about London that have nothing to do with these Olympics except for the fact that they're held in . . . London.  Which kind of makes me glad that the 2012 Games weren't held in New York as had once been hoped.  If I want to see human interest stories about New York, I'll watch the six o'clock news.  (I live in the Greater New York area.)  Better yet, I'll go into the city and hang around Washington Square Park for a few hours.
NBC has gotten some flak for its coverage, and not just for tape-delaying big-ticket events and mostly airing lesser events live.  NBC is also getting criticism for what it hasn't done.  It didn't air the opening ceremonies live, so the network and its stations could stick to their regular schedule of local and national news.  NBC also edited out a tribute to the victims of the July 7, 2005 London subway bombing - which took place the day after London won the 2012 Games - during the opening ceremony so it could run an interview with Michael Phelps conducted by . . . Ryan Seacrest, quickly replacing John Tesh as the worst Olympic color commentator of all time.
There was no excuse for either of these two decisions, especially the latter one.  Not everyone on NBC's payroll has to interview Michael Phelps,  and the British have every right to be as ticked off about the London bombing tribute being edited out of American television as the Americans would have been had the BBC edited out the 9/11 tribute during the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Middle of Nowhere (as David Cameron described Salt Lake City) Winter Olympics.  NBC said it did so to tailor the broadcast to "American audiences," as if we Yanks didn't care about terrorist events elsewhere.  And in that same vein, I have problems with NBC's correspondents not interviewing non-American gold medal winners, even though there are more non-American athletes from non-English-speaking countries who know English these days.   
But, as this intelligent article from Michael Rosenberg makes clear, NBC would probably have a hard time changing anything.  The network's strategy has generated huge ratings, and NBC doesn't often enjoy such a thing these days.  (NBC's decision to edit the opening ceremonies to appeal to American audiences drew a wonderful comeback from Jon Stewart, who cited the network's eight-year-long last-place ratings showing as proof that it doesn't know how to appeal to American audiences.)  NBC knows that people want to see the big sports - swimming, gymnastics, track and field - in prime time, since most Americans in the work force are still nine-to-fivers.  If you want to watch those events live, and you have free time and Internet access, you can stream them.  But many folks prefer to watch them on TV, and if they're online during the times the big events take place, it's just to check their e-mail.  Those who have free afternoons can see other sports, such as cycling and volleyball, live on TV, as well as swimming heats. The appeal of all of these sports, whenever or however you watch them, is that you don't often see them in the three years and fifty weeks that the Games aren't on; if they're on American TV anywhere else, you'd be hard-pressed to find them.
The American Olympic viewing audience is largely comprised of casual sports fans, not die-hards who watch every World Series or Stanley Cup (and would watch every international volleyball championship if they could).   I'm one of the casual fans.  I like a lot of the Olympic sports you normally don't see on American television elsewhere, and I don't mind that it would be difficult to find synchronized diving on ESPN between Olympiads; I have other things to do.  I appreciate the athlete profiles, if only because American swimmer Jessica Hardy isn't as well-known as LeBron James, and so I want to know whom I'm rooting for.  (I could do without the sob stories; the story of American bicycle racer Taylor Phinney and the struggle of his father,  professional bicycle racer Davis Phinney, battling Parkinson's disease is heartwarming, but it doesn't make me more inclined to root for Taylor Phinney than I already was.) And I love, love, love the travelogue features.  I want to see segments like the one on King Henry VIII and the architectural grandeur of his Hampton Court Palace (where the men's cycling individual time trial was held), because I've never been to England and likely will never make it there.  So, yes, NBC's Olympic coverage may not appeal to die-hard sports fans, and the overall quality is so-so.  But in appealing to a mass audience, NBC could do worse with its Olympic coverage.  ABC did do worse at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the coverage of which appeared to be designed to whip up Americans into invading another Caribbean country after Grenada.
It's the rampant jingoism of American Olympic TV coverage in particular that annoys me.  But for us Americans, we're what the Olympics are all about, and NBC knows that.  It would be nice if this big country of ours, three thousand miles long and fifteen hundred miles wide (give or take), could be a Continental nation as well as a continental nation, but we're hopelessly self-absorbed. Deal with it.  I do, with this blog.
Oh yeah . . . British cyclist Bradley Wiggins, who just won the Tour de France, won the United Kingdom's second gold medal of these Games (the first was in women's rowing) in the men's individual time trial.  I saw it live - American TV at its best. NBC didn't interview Wiggins - American TV at its worst.

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