It’s my turn at the anchor desk for tonight’s primetime broadcast from the London 2012 Olympic Games, and as you watch the sun slowly set over the Thames behind me (RECORDED EARLIER), let me recommend catching up with the story so far. No, not the medal count or PhelpsWatch, but Marcus’ and Phil’s coverage from the last two nights. They’ve cogently raised questions and provided appropriate historical context for the phenomenon that is the time-shifted, “plausibly live,” “up close and personal” dramatization of the Games, vilification of which is now bidding to become a new Olympic sport in its own right.
So let me confess right up front that while NBC’s coverage often annoys the living crap out of me (mostly for its gymnasti-swim obsession, uncritical homerism, preference for living-room-friendly storylines in lieu of actual competition, and some of the less informative and more predictable color commentators), I really don’t mind the idea behind the primetime show. They’ve given you everything live and streaming online, after all, so nobody is being forced to wait for results. There are more networks showing non-marquee events all day long than there have ever been before. It’s hard to blame NBC for wanting to put together a show that draws big numbers with a proven formula, and it’s especially hard to act as if they’ve left us with no other choice than to watch their taped and edited packages. Nope, if you turn it on, it’s not because it’s the only Olympics game in town. It’s because you decided to be a part of one of the few bits of mass culture we have left.
With that in mind, let’s talk as much about the sports and how they are presented as we can manage. It’s mostly gymnasti-swim, as we’re well aware, but do you know what I watched on my iPad while at the office today? Sailing, archery, and badminton. It was fabulous, and fabulously presented. I think this is where NBC makes an error it can’t defend, by excluding highlights or coverage of the great variety of sports from primetime, because I’d be surprised if people didn’t tune in to get a taste of the whole exotic Olympic program. Sure, they want adorable gamins flipping around and shirtless galoots dolphin-kicking, but there’s undoubtedly some vague resentment that the five hours of nightly coverage constitute a conspiracy of silence about the existence of shooting sports and field hockey.
The evening starts with quick-before-you-hit-the-water gymnastics, or diving, so far only competing in its relatively recent synchronized version. It’s hypnotic to watch, and to listen to—I’m fascinated by the back-and-forth right before the dive, which for the American teams is always something like “Ready?” “Yeah.” “One, two, three.” We get to hear versions of that in several languages, and ponder how that routine leads to a cadence of movements that are more about muscle memory than about the tempo established by the count. I wish we could get a little education about the dives being attempted and the criteria for judging before the dive, rather than watching in relative ignorance and then having Cynthia Potter say “that was spectacular.” I’ll tell you what I do appreciate, though; this is diving where the analysts talk about something other than whether there was a big splash upon entry, which always seems like a concession to an uninformed audience. “We know you can’t tell if they got all the twists done, but the splash? You’re all over that.”
The ten-meter platform events features Chinese, British, and American divers (who win bronze); no surprise there. It is refreshing to see the Mexican pair in the spotlight, described in awed terms as having the highest degree of difficulty in the competition, and doing the hardest single dive, a quadruple somersault. The “strobe” graphic the producers pull out to illustrate this is one of the most informative of the night. What the edited approach loses, however, is the sense of the rotations, with team after team moving gradually through the prescribed levels of difficulty with their personally chosen exemplars and challenges. I have to wonder if we will see a more inclusive, completist approach to the individual diving marquee events.
Before we go to beach volleyball, John McEnroe interviews the beach babes, uh, elite athletes of the team in their native habitat. I like Johnny Mac perfectly well, but I find the way NBC is using him as kind of a Barbara Walters very strange. He’s apparently been deemed too valuable to hang out on Bravo with the tennis coverage. When the package is over, Bob Costas claims that Wilt Chamberlain was the best beach volleyball player before it was an actual sport, and then intimates that he might have been doing it just to pick up tail. It’s apparently cold at the beach venue, and the ladies have covered up their famous bikinis with long-sleeved shirts and pants, so sociologists can check the minute-by-minute ratings tomorrow to see how many disappointed couch potatoes decided to flip over to the baseball game. I’m not a fan of beach volleyball nor of NBC’s determination to make snowboarder-like slacker stars out of the American teams with their surfer bods and kicky backwards baseball caps and Dodger fandom; I prefer “regular” volleyball with its wild fake spikes and drop shots and blocks and longer rallies. Seems like on the beach, the ball never goes across the net more than twice before the team of two can’t cover the court. (In practice, it’s one poor person back there running the ball down since her teammate is up at the net blocking.)
Before the first swimming event of the night, the women’s 200 meter freestyle, we get a package about seventeen-year-old Missy Franklin’s normal high school life, with the joking and the Justin Bieber fandom. (I’m not buying it on the Bieb, by the way. NBC seems dead set on horsecollaring every young female athlete with that obsession.) Here’s a sport where NBC’s single-mindedness really pays off. Because they show all the semifinal heats, we get to follow the story about strategy in qualifying, and appreciate how difficult it is to figure out how much hold back without slipping out of the finals altogether (as Phelps almost did in his first event). This is a good time to mention, too, that although I don’t find color broadcaster Rowdy Gaines extremely informative about the technical aspects of the sport—his basic mode is to talk about heart and digging deep—you have to appreciate his comprehensive knowledge of the sport’s major events and personnel. He goes to all the national and international championships, all the Olympics, and he can summarize the story arc of the competitions like nobody else.
For once, the venue and primetime coverage schedules coincide enough to give us a taste of swimming in real time. Franklin has to swim a 200m free semifinal, and then only ten minutes later, compete in the 100m backstroke final. Much like last night’s in-the-moment images of the gymnast denied her spot in the all-around competition, watching Franklin negotiate with a venue official about whether she can slip back into the pool to stay loose between the swims feels like catching a glimpse of the games unfiltered. In between, Lochte comes in fourth in a hard-fought 200m freestyle, the event that Phelps dropped from his program. Andrea Mitchell seems to be asking Ryan, in the postrace interview, as much about how he feels about letting down America and NBC who wanted so much to make him a Phelps-sized star (but with Wheaties-box good lucks), but now will have to settle for a shot-putter or something. Franklin’s huge comeback swim after the turn in the 100m backstroke is the kind of competition we all tune in for; nobody was listening to the play-by-play for the last 20 meters because we were all yelling at our televisions, “Go! Go! Go!” Later in the broadcast, Matt Grevers and Nick Thoman go one-two in the 100m backstroke, an event I find fascinating mainly for the different styles of readying for the start. There’s weirdness at the start of the 100m breaststroke, with one of the first-time American competitors false-starting on an errant beep, but Rebecca Soni finishes in silver position.
Men’s team gymnastics finals begins with Al Trautwig intoning, “There is no safety net today in men’s gymnastics,” which is pretty much like any other day except for the one when they combined it with circus college. Let me clear something up. Maybe I’m misunderstanding the complaints about Tim Daggett’s color commentary, but he is not telling us what happened seconds before it happens, as some people have alleged. The announcing isn’t, I’m confident, recorded after the fact, but as the event unfolds, and Daggett is anticipating elements and moves that he knows are coming because he’s watched them in practice. Occasionally, because multiple competitors are performing on different apparatuses at the same time, the broadcast team will do a little golf-style instant replay—”moments ago, on the pommel horse”—for something that happened while they were showing a complete routine elsewhere.
Things don’t go well for the U.S. team on the pommel, and when one competitor has his teammates stop by to comfort him afterwards, Daggett murmurs: “They’re coming by telling him it’s okay—” “But it’s not okay,” insists buzzkill Elfi Schlegel. The reason gymnastics is so popular is because of the tightrope of mental discipline the athletes display during their routines, because of the promise of individual achievement, and because failure leads to such naked emotion. I wish Daggett would talk less about the psychological journey of the men and their team, and more about, y’know, how you do this stuff and what makes it hard. Much like I said earlier about diving, the analysis of any particular move seems frequently to be reduced to Trautwig asking preemptively, “Is that a stick?” We can’t be expected to grasp the nuances of anything but whether there was a step or a hop on the landing.
With the USA in a poor position after pommel horse, Trautwig narrates a little mini-documentary about what other teams did in their standout performances. (Note all three broadcasters’ use of the past tense as they give after-the-fact commentary on this catch-up package, before going back live to the Chinese high bar specialist.) Then the last chance for high scores comes when the Americans move to the vault—only to start off with John Orozco getting no height and ending in a sitting position. Uh oh. The storyline is falling apart, there will be no team medal for the American men.
When we return at the end of the night, it’s to meet up with the last rotation and hear about China’s implausible comeback from a rotten qualifying round to first place, and to watch the partisan London crowd go crazy for their British squad, in medal contention for the first time in decades. The director cuts to Prince William so much that they must have had a camera dedicated solely to him. Princecam. Luckily, the scoring controversy that briefly vaults Great Britain into silver, after a devastating Japanese flub on their last routine, is far more dramatic than anything the network could have hoped for. When the Japanese team official approaches the judges with money in his hand, it takes Daggett way too long to correct Trautwig on his assertion that this looks suspicious (or, as Daggett misspeaks, “circumspect”); all appeals now require a cash payment to file. It’s great television, and it doesn’t lose a thing for being “plausibly live”; the announcers are struggling to keep up with the rapidly changing situation, cameras are following paperwork around and peeking in on huddled judges, and athletes keep stealing peeks at the scoreboard to see if anything changes.
And so NBC shifts away from the solid two hours of men’s gymnastics it had planned for the end of the night, and goes all swimming, all the time. They resort to a Phelps-less 200 meter butterfly semi, showing Phelps watching from the ready room, before getting to his semi and having Rowdy suggest with trepidation that it might be his best (read: only) chance. Rowdy is in top Phelps-apologist form, pointing out repeatedly that this is his signature event, that his poor performance in the relay last night is understandable because he didn’t train for it. Phelps comes on in the last 50 meters, and Rowdy backtracks from his worry at the last turn that Phelps didn’t look sharp; now he’s “the guy to beat, no doubt about it,” for the final tomorrow. In response to an unanswerable Andrea Kramer question (“which Michael will show up tomorrow?”), Phelps ducks and covers, only to be called “coy and cryptic” by the same Bob Costas who earlier seemed utterly flummoxed by coming back from a commercial. Oh well. We always have live online streaming, refreshingly anchor-free.
- My curiosity about the folkways of the synchronized divers (of all divers?) has only increased from last night. What are those shammies they constantly soak in water and carry around? What temperature of air comes out of those jets positioned in the wall where the divers practice their Playgirl pictorial poses?
- It’s shocking to see the synchronized divers not making any attempt to match up in body type, especially the British pair who are practically Mutt and Jeff.
- Misti May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings’ opponents are the Czech Republic team, who briefly give them a scare in the second set. Not that anybody expects the Americans could lose, you see, but they’ve never lost a set in Olympic play. “I don’t know what the Czechs are doing,” color commentator Kevin Wong grumbles at one point, as if they should know better.
- When did we all start abbreviating the swimming strokes? Free, back, fly, breast. Even Olympic Broadcasting’s graphics go along with this Twitter-friendly jargon.
- My TiVo froze up at one point, and I missed a commercial break switching back to the live broadcast. Twitter indicates that I missed a Today Show promo that spoiled the Missy Franklin gold right before it was broadcast. Gotta be tough to keep that all straight in master control. “No no no — that’s the 10 pm break promo?” “Eh, how could it possibly matter?”
- A lot of the male gymnasts do a move on the floor that I’d call the Auto-Fellate. It may be a required element, or it may just be showing off.
- How adorable is it to listen as a gymnast’s team members yell short bursts of encouragement while he competes? (The women did it last night, too … but not on the balance beam, if you noticed.)
- Best announcer comment, after Larson’s false start due to the weird beep: “And now a technician is messing with the equipment.”