Sunday, August 10, 2008

Notes from the Olympics

I am, of course, over-watching the Olympics. Without the cable, I am consigned to watching only what the big NBC wants me to see, but that seems like plenty. Every time, I rail at the ever-declining quality of the coverage, but this is the first time I've had a blog to express that. So bear with me.

First, the Opening Ceremonies. I found parts of the artistic presentation remarkable, other parts tedious. It would likely have been better if Zhang Yimou, the film director who was in charge, had directed the television coverage as well. I couldn't help but feel that we as viewers were missing things that we were supposed to see. The gushing over it, even through today, by the NBC people, both national and local, seems excessive. But it fits into a pattern that I plan to mention later in this post.

It seems quite clear that NBC has decided that people don't watch the Olympics for any numbers or results at all. The coverage of the men's gymnastics preliminaries were devoid of context, simply showing routine after routine with the (very) occasional comment that the U.S. looked good to make the top 8 teams going on to the team final. It took a quick end-of-show mention by Bob Costas to confirm that, and an almost throwaway line that two Americans qualified for the all-around and only two qualified for individual apparatus finals. It was actually a pretty disappointing performance for the U.S. team.

And the curious obsession of NBC with gymnast Raj Bhavsar, so obvious at the Olympic Trials, continued. His story is mildly interesting; he just missed making the team in 2004, came up short again in 2008, getting on the team only because Paul Hamm was injured. Realistically, however, he's the seventh or eighth best American gymnast, which is not at all unimpressive, but it hardly merits coverage that slights the young men who originally beat him out.

One has come to expect the laser-like focus on American athletes, ignoring virtually every other person except as he or she is a foil for the U.S. But it is incredibly boring to hear about a very few ("It's Michael Phelps and 7 other guys in the's Phelps...Phelps is leading...there's another guy, but Phelps can beat him...Phelps...Phelps...Phelps!"). I know the production team pre-scopes all the stories they plan to cover, and everything revolves around that, but, you know what, even the most casual viewer knows that Dara Torres is 41, has a child, and is swimming well. There must be other things to talk about.

What I mentioned earlier, something that has been running throughout the coverage so far, is the gape-mouthed attitude towards China and the Chinese people. It's an amazing story to be sure, the rise of China on the world stage, but that doesn't consecrate every single person or place in the whole country. I don't remember anywhere close to this adulation being heaped upon the Italians for the 2006 Games in Turin; in fact, the Olympics might as well have been held on a stage set for all of that, so pronounced was the lack of local color. NBC, it's a country, a bunch of people - let's try to dial down the awe of this exotic land of mystery.


Greg said...

Androcass: I'll never forget the 1996 Olympics. I was living in Atlanta at the time. One day, some friends and I attended the medal round for the men's team gymnastics. It was a very interesting battle between teams from Russia, Ukraine, Japan and China. The US was in the medal round but they were far behind the leaders. Fascinating. That evening, we went out for dinner, and the restaurant was showing the olympics on a TV. It was amazing- NBC showed the men's team gymnastics, showing the progress of the US team. There was no coverage of the teams from Russia, Ukraine, etc. NBC showed a very different program from the event we attended that afternoon.

Now that we live in Seattle, Comcast gives us the CBC station from Vancouver BC, so we have a choice between NBC and CBC coverage of the olympics. Unfortunately, we don't get an HD feed from Vancouver, so the picture quality is very poor for the CBC station. We've mostly been watching the NBC coverage, but the CBC is better overall.

Anonymous said...

look on the internet. it's streaming through silverlight somewhere. (i work on silverlight so it's a big deal around the office.)

Citizen Carrie said...

Not to defend the networks, but they have a tough job. I remember ABC getting criticized in the 1976 Olympics for not showing enough Americans. (That was the year of Nadia Comaneci.)

My most frustrating Olympic TV experience was when Greg Louganis was diving for gold in 1988 in Seoul. He was competing at the same time that the American basketball team was playing (I don't think it was a finals match.) The network showed most of the basketball game, but only broke away to show the diving when Greg did his dives. I might as well have just read the results in the newspaper the next day. Without seeing how the other competitors were doing in comparison, Greg's dives were meaningless.

Androcass said...

Greg - I have heard before that the "live" Olympics are incredibly different from the network version. I know that the act of shaping a telecast inevitably changes the coverage, though I wonder if, perhaps, the Olympics are the most distorted. I'd guess that the average NBA game is reasonably close, that baseball and football are telecast pretty much as they are (filtering out the reality that live will always be a different experience). But it seems the Olympics, maybe because there's so much going on, maybe because the sports are relatively unfamiliar (so we can't inform the coverage with our own experience), is starkly different on TV than in person.

As for the CBC, I've heard they really excel at the Winter Olympics, which isn't very surprising, I guess.

anon - I don't know much about Silverlight technically, though I've heard pros and cons about its future. But it must be thrilling to see something you're working on become such a big deal for such a big event.

CC - Yes, it's a tough job, which I acknowledge. But I'm of the belief that the coverage should be rooted in sports, with inevitable soap opera overtones. (It's actually dismissive of women to argue that they "need" the softer stuff; my wife is less tolerant of the dead grandmother features than I am.)

It's possible to expose the human side of the athletes without forgetting that there's a competition here. The men's gymnastics coverage was abysmal, tantamount to showing individual at bats and biographies of the players without ever revealing the final score.

I've actually given up on the American focus issue. Advertisers think Americans want to see Americans, maybe they're right, and NBC just goes along with it. It's just reflective of a society that prefers to see six billion people as little more than extras in their own drama.

Citizen Carrie said...

I noticed a turning point in the 1984 Olympics in LA. The Soviet Union and most other Eastern bloc nations boycotted the games in retaliation for the US and other Western countries boycotting the 1980 summer games in Moscow.

I thought the 1984 games were somewhat tainted since most of the best athletes in the world were not competing. However, the 1984 games were hugely successful and drew fantastic ratings in the US. Ever since then, coverage seemed to turn into all USA, all the time.

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