Why do we care so much about the Olympics?
I mean, they must really matter to us, because NBC’s television coverage is enough to make you spit cake at your HD screen. Yet the television ratings are through the roof. The first four nights averaged 34.8 million viewers, on pace for the highest U.S. audience since Atlanta in 1996, and the highest for an Olympics not based in the U.S. since Montreal in 1976. Yes, they are showing more events live on channels like Bravo and NBC Sports than they ever have before. But the biggest events are still tape-delayed and packaged manipulatively to wring maximum drama out of every medal.
Gymnastics and swimming are overhyped and overexposed, while sports like sailing, kayaking, judo and fencing are rarely shown live during the day and are virtually invisible in prime time. Random celebs who have no Olympic background, from Ryan Seacrest to John McEnroe, are trotted out to talk about Twitter and Facebook and beach volleyball bikinis, getting more airtime than the two Olympic athletes thrown out of the Games for making racist tweets or the athletes in those bikinis. And don’t you just love dodging spoiler alerts all day long so NBC’s prime-time broadcast holds a modicum of suspense that might keep you awake till midnight?
We love the Olympics, the ultimate reality show, with all its attendant action, heartbreak and tears, plus a healthy injection of patriotism thrown into the mix. It’s heady stuff. Justin Bieber, Anne Hathaway and Taylor Swift watch the Games. (They’re all fans of Missy Franklin.) Samuel L. Jackson watches the Games. (According to his amusing tweets, he’s a fan of everything, from soccer to ping-pong to water polo: “As dope as always!”) My 87-year-old mother watches the Games, as does my 20-year-old son. I frankly don’t know anyone who doesn’t watch the Olympics. Can you imagine if the coverage were actually superior?
I’m not even going to complain about the endless commercials. Hey, NBC spent $1.18 billion for the rights to these Games. That’s before all the production costs. It looks like they might almost break even. So I can live with the commercials. Nor does it chafe my drawers that they don’t show everything live. I think it’s a mistake, but I’d probably just record the live events on my DVR during the day and watch them in the evenings anyway.
What infuriates me is the lack of imagination, the numbing sameness of the prime-time coverage. If NBC insists on packaging the Olympics, at least let the package showcase a little variety.
Surprise us! You can make any sport interesting, even fascinating, for 20 minutes. When I was covering Olympics in other countries, I used to turn on the TV in my hotel room and flip around between Olympic sports. (Most countries telecast all events.) I remember watching skeet shooting in Beijing (the commentary was in Mandarin) for half an hour, marveling at each little purplish puff. (The clay pigeons have a puce dye in them for easier identification.) Table tennis is an absolute marvel at the Games.
There doesn’t have to be an American, or even a medal, at stake. Show us the sport. And take a lesson from NASCAR. Put a tiny camera on a fencer’s helmet. Better yet, put a camera on one of the fences in the eventing competition, so we can see those beautiful horses jump right into our living rooms! Put a camera in a rowing scull, or on a sailboat, or a canoe. Show us some mountain biking. Get a camera in the field hockey goal. How about an overhead shot of the trampoline?
That’s right, trampoline, mountain biking and field hockey are all Olympic sports. Not that you’d know it by NBC’s coverage. So are handball, modern pentathlon and Taekwondo. So many sports, and so much time … 17 days’ worth of time.… But NBC takes the safe, easy road by devoting almost all of its prime-time coverage to gymnastics, swimming, track and field and, sadly, basketball.
Look, I covered gymnastics. I love gymnastics. But I don’t need to see the little girls marching from one apparatus to the next. I don’t need to see them waiting for their scores, wringing their tiny hands. I don’t need to see shot after shot of their parents. And I certainly don’t need to see Ryan Lochte or even the delightful Missy Franklin doing lazy turns in the warm-up pool between their events. I understand that the TV world is intent on manufacturing and following every eye-twitch of its anointed “superstars.” (Didn’t quite work out with the Lochte-hype, did it?) But what most of us really want to see is competition. Even if we don’t understand its rules, we’d rather see the judo matches of the inspirational Kayla Harrison of Wakefield, Mass., who became America’s first judo gold medalist, than listen to another tedious, unenlightening poolside interview with a breathless Michael Phelps just after a race.
If only we, the Olympic faithful, could convince NBC to stop dumbing down its coverage. Let us learn something new. Show us something fresh, something we’ve never seen before. Every Olympian has a story. Every medal is won with sweat, sacrifice and tears. Every loss is, in its way, heartbreaking. It’s not just the gymnasts who cry. It’s not just the sprinters who thrust their finger in the air and exult at being number one. It’s not just the swimmers who put their hands over their mouths and beam, eyes shining, their dreams realized.
It happens in every sport. It never gets old. It’s why we care. It’s why we watch.
This program aired on August 6, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.