We’re only a few days into the 2012 Summer Olympics, but already it feels as if we’re in the nascent stage of The War To Determine The Future Of All Media Consumption. Much ink, virtual and otherwise, has been spilled already trying to assess NBC’s coverage, which has demonstrated a willingness to hoard coverage of popular events as they happen in real time and hold them off the air until primetime. Any and all events are available via streaming, but access to streaming depends on a variety of elements (the right cable package, the right access to the content, bandwidth speeds) not always in the hands of the common viewer. You can watch a potentially pixilated version of Michael Phelps trying to make Olympic history on your laptop, or you can wait for Bob Costas to introduce the event hours after it actually happened.
Naturally, this approach has sparked more than a few less-than-dispassionate responses here on the interwebs, where not only streaming but the ability to discuss coverage 140 characters at a time on Twitter has allowed for a passionate, vocal, small subset of Olympics viewers to voice displeasure at the way NBC has timeshifted its coverage in order to maximize ratings. As per usual in situations like this, both sides have valid points but also miss some big-picture items that could have stemmed the current vitriolic tide. As James Poniewozik theorized a few days ago, NBC thought the streaming service would be enough to placate those currently enraged by the network’s delayed coverage. Giving away all content would seem like a good PR move, but eliminate people who might idly flip through the dials and accidentally stumble upon the biggest race of the Olympics at 2:30 pm on a Wednesday. The former isn’t a ratings problem. The latter is a potentially huge one.
So NBC either didn’t understand or didn’t assume people might be outraged that multiple channels carrying hundreds of hours of content would be handpicked in order to show the perceived big-ticket items at a single time at night. But that thinking demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of information in this age: It not only wants to be out, but has more ways of getting out than ever before. The notion that holding back Michael Phelps to the late hours of the night merely builds anticipation is a falsehood. NBC might own the rights to air this content, but it doesn’t own the rights to distribute information about it ahead of time.
Thanks to Twitter, one could read a line-by-line transcript of every major panel at Comic-Con this year. There’s no scarcity of information, even when the topic itself seems scarce. Those that want to find out something can, and will, and generally look for the easiest and safest way by which to obtain it. NBC could have been that source, and could have made acolytes out of those currently brandishing torches. The network’s top-down, walled-off approach is antithetical to the wiki-fication of information online. Rather than keeping all the content to itself, NBC could have shared it all, then let the small but dedicated online masses do a lot (though far from all) of the heavy lifting. Live streaming is a good start, but live broadcasting is another. That’s one way to get protesters to start proselytizing.
On the other hand, those calling for NBC to burn to the ground aren’t exactly coming off smelling like roses here. NBC pointing to the ratings as proof their strategy is “working” ignore those they are antagonizing in the process. NBC can have high ratings AND be making unsavvy moves in the process. But the unsavviness is, at this point, a matter of public relations rather than hard-earned cash. There are entrenched business models that, even in 2012, aren’t anywhere near dissipating. My mother doesn’t care about livestreaming, hashtags, or anything else about Olympics coverage in the digital age. One could argue she’s missing out, but I (and NBC, I imagine) would counter that there are a lot more people like my mother than those retweeting posts with the hashtag #NBCFail. It’s easy to miss that, with the echo chamber of Twitter offering little in the way of dissention on a grass-roots level. But those protesting, even while having solid arguments in their corner, are still in the vast minority at this point.
It reminds me somewhat of the confused furor in these parts over Community. It can seem, from this particular virtual watering hole, that Community should be the biggest comedy on any network. The level of enthusiasm, passion, and engagement that readers of The A.V. Club offer that show is nothing short of stunning. It’s also nothing short of an anomaly. That’s not to cast aspersions on the show nor its fanbase, here or otherwise. But NBC isn’t trying to appeal with its Olympics coverage to the vocal minority so much as the passive majority. Those that don’t understand that aren’t wrong, except that they often refuse to see the other side’s point of view, and perhaps don’t recognize their sentiments aren’t as widespread as they might believe. Again: this isn’t about the credibility of the opinion so much as its placement within larger, occasionally conflicting viewpoints.
Some Community fans want to convert non-viewers to the show, as if simple exposure will illuminate a singular truth. Some protesting NBC’s Olympics coverage think exposing the current inadequacies will instantly transform other viewers’ opinions about the network’s approach. But you could show my mother a dozen ways in which she could more actively decide her Olympics’ viewing experience, and chances are she’ll still tune in after dinner for a while, leave the coverage on during commercials, and go to bed not feeling as if she’s missed out on anything at all. There’s a difference between creating spaces for multiple ways of consuming content and demanding that NBC accommodate every possible way someone might possible want to watch every event. Neither side is wrong, even if “being right” seems to be the paramount in this squabble. These are important conversations to have, and toning down the antagonism on both sides (coupled with inevitable increases in technology) could produce some interesting results for either the 2014 Winter Games or the 2016 Summer Games.
I started tonight’s coverage with this lengthy introduction, because I wanted to have my thoughts on all the elements outside of the primetime coverage in and of itself known. It felt important, since context is everything, and context is key when I tell you that NBC’s overall primetime coverage of the Olympics thus far has been pretty fucking horrible.
My colleagues have outlined the major problems over the past few days, but in essence, it boils down to the way NBC treats this four-hour block as a narrative it has to shape rather than a sporting event it has to cover. When it comes to simply depicting the action without the accompaniment of either a prepackaged montage or overly scripted human drama element, the results barely past muster. If they do, it's because of the athletes themselves, not NBC.
The opening segment tonight doesn’t cover Michael Phelps, Missy Franklin, or the women’s gymnastics team, but rather the finals of the women’s 10 meter synchronized platform diving competition. Rather than use this as a springboard (pun intended) for the rest of the night, NBC treats it like something added in order to pad the running time. It feels less like the proper start of four hours of athletic coverage and more like stalling before the main event, the opening act no one came to see but everyone has to endure.
NBC can’t get out of this coverage fast enough, skipping the first of five rounds entirely, selectively picking the teams it wants to cover, and generally ramping up its editing to breakneck speeds. Trimming the fat of inaction between dives is definitely appreciated, but there’s barely any time for color commentator Cynthia Potter to critique each dive within an inch of its life. (Seriously, someone needs to hug her, and quickly. One person’s “holy shit that was amazing” is Potter’s “well, that was terrible”.) The lack of Americans involved in this segment probably explains the rapidity of the coverage, but I suppose we should credit NBC for acknowledging other countries are actually participating in these Games. Still, the way in which both announcers preordain the Chinese team as gold medal winners is lazy analysis at best, post-event smugness at worst. Things line up exactly as the announcers predict, which robs the proceedings of any real drama.
After that, the men’s 100-meter freestyle semifinals get even shorter shrift, with two heats taking up two short segments between commercials breaks before NBC turns towards women’s gymnastics. (At this point, we’re fifty minutes into tonight’s primetime coverage and we’ve seen roughly twenty minutes of actual competition. Maybe.) We watch the United States’ team enter, and NBC quickly segues a pre-taped sequence set to American Idol winner Phillip Phillips’ song “Home.” Luckily, the prepackaged segment is short, and we go right back to the arena as each team gets introduced. “Team USA will start on the vault, and as if it was written, Jordyn Wieber will be the first to go,” intones Al Trautwig. The idea that these competitions should be written, rather than performed, informs the way in which NBC builds up certain athletes to fulfill prescribed roles rather than their athletic potential.
How much of what unfolds over the course of NBC’s lengthy gymnastics’ coverage works as drama depends, of course, on how much the viewer has managed to avoid spoilers throughout the day. As mentioned earlier: Even if NBC withheld coverage during the day, there were more than a few ways that people could learn about the results, either seeking them out actively or accidentally stumbling upon them. I fell into the latter category, which helps me focus less on the specifics of the events and more on the ways in which Trautwig, Tim Daggett, and Elfi Schlegel engage in “U-S-A! U-S-A!” histrionics throughout the proceedings. The three heap such praise on McKayla Maroney’s initial vault that it almost turns sycophantic, with everything short of the invention of fire itself paling in comparison to Maroney’s execution. Time that could have been spent analyzing the Russian team was instead spent chastising the judges for not giving Maroney a perfect score.
Coming back from commercial break—during which Maroney’s Vault achieved sentience, ascended into the sky, and then demanded fealty from those in the audience—NBC shows a mere two performances from the remaining six teams before returning to Costas in order to segue into women’s swimming. Before doing so, Costas throws a final jab at the gymnastics’ judges, noting Maroney’s “seemingly perfect vault” before announcing some upcoming heats. At this point, I’m wondering if we’re going to see everyone at NBC fight Maroney’s Vault’s seven evil exes rather than witness Missy Franklin go for gold again.
Franklin is indeed in the next event, the 200-meter freestyle, but the focus is all on Allison Schmitt. However, the way in which NBC achieves this focus is instructive of its emphasis of narrative over sport. The race itself, in which Schmitt breaks her own American record to win the gold by a landslide, is sandwiched in between two bizarre, much longer segments. The first can only be described as a ‘shipper video made by those hoping she and Michael Phelps one day bring their athletic babies to the nearest Subway. The second is post-race interviewed by Andrea Kremer, who loves nothing more than to seek answers from athletes who can barely breathe due to recent, intense physical exertion. Poor Schmitt barely has time to catch her breath, never mind collect her thoughts, immediately after winning her first individual gold medal. Kremer then incredibly ends the interview by saying, “The sport of swimming is glad you got cut from your soccer team.” Schmitt then went off-camera and punched the nearest kitten, probably.
NBC sends coverage back to the women’s gymnastics arena, where fourteen virgins have been sacrificed to slake Maroney’s Vault’s bloodlust since we departed the action. The coverage gets interesting here, because as with last night, it’s unclear how much of the analysts’ use of the past tense to describe the action stems from post-production and how much of it comes from the fact that each rotation features action happening simultaneously off-screen. Even more curious? One of the few non-American performances that NBC shows is one Trautwig admits yielded the Romanian team its lowest score. Of all the pieces to show from an already-completed event, why choose that one? Even if every team can’t be completely followed, selecting their less-than-impressive performances for air seems like an odd choice.
As the competition goes on, it’s clear that NBC has dubbed tonight “The Jordyn Wieber Story” in the production booth. Her disappointing all-around performance the other night has set up a ready-made redemption story tonight, with her teammates cast in supporting roles to help Wieber achieve the dream of gold. Highlighting certain individuals in order to build an emotional bond between athlete and viewer is par for the course in Olympics coverage, and hardly a cardinal sin in and of itself. There’s a difference, however, between the way networks build up coverage of athletes before the Games begin and the way networks build them up after the events themselves have been complete. This year, we saw a lot of hype surrounding Ryan Lochte, and some of that has bitten NBC in the ass as he’s somewhat slight underperformed those. (I say “slightly” because Lord knows Lochte is not Dan O’Brien or Dave Johnson.) But before we get to the end of the gymnastics’ coverage, let me offer up this thought experiment: Would NBC have shown video of Allison Schmitt and Michael Phelps all but make out had she not won the gold medal moments later?
If you thought you’d get through this night’s coverage without Ryan Seacrest, well, prepare to reap a harvest of pain for your insolence. We get more footage of the same interview we’ve seen between Seacrest and Phelps throughout NBC’s Olympics coverage, this time focusing on Phelps’ long relationship with his coach Bob Bowman. After that, announcers Dan Hicks and Rowdy Gaines set up Phelps’ attempt to break the all-time record for most medals won in the Olympic Games. While I’ve railed against the amount of actual athletics tonight, adequately setting the stage for what’s to come makes total sense in this case. While the hyper-attuned fan is undoubtedly aware of Phelps’ proximity to history, casual viewers benefit from such context.
Two parents provide the most human moment of the Games tonight in the aftermath of the men’s 200-meter butterfly. Debbie Phelps initially believes her son Michael to have won, and watching the millisecond when she realizes he only placed silver is slightly heartbreaking. But then NBC cuts to the father of winner Chad le Clos, who is so shocked by the result that he’s draped himself in the South African flag as if to shield himself from the amazing upset. It’s one of the better “stories” NBC has told all night, and it didn’t require anything but the drama of the sport itself to provide it.
We’re roughly two and a half hours into tonight’s coverage at this point, and as NBC returns to gymnastics, one can feel more breathing room in the coverage. The rapid-fire editing that stymied the synchronized diving segments has melted away, offering up room for the audience to get into the headspace of the American team as they prepare their rotation on the balance beam. The long wait for Gabby Douglas to start her routine adds tension to performance, which the analysts note is fraught with potential peril. Staying in-arena has consistently worked in the favor of tonight’s coverage, drawing power from the sheer spectacle of the event. Anytime NBC goes to canned material, the coverage wavers. Sorry, Seacrest.
“It’s starting to feel like a two-country race: The United States and Russia,” sagely observes Trautwig. And we know this is true, because we’ve really only seen performances from those two teams thus far. I have to imagine the other six countries didn’t totally suck, and thus the editing strategy here reduces, rather than refines, the coverage. It doesn’t help that the Russians then start wilting on the balance beam immediately after Trautwig’s declaration. The strategy here, from a broadcasting perspective, is clear: “Stay tuned: You are likely to see Americans win the gold.” It’s a sound strategy from a ratings’ perspective, but it’s also a case of the announcers injecting themselves into the drama rather than simply commenting on it.
We’re back at the pool, because NBC LOVES SWIMMING AND GYMNASTICS AND NOTHING ELSE. (Sorry, I’m a bit punchy at this point.) Chinese phenom Ye Shiwen wins the gold, as expected, in the 200-meter individual medley. No surprise there. What is semi-surprising is Bob Costas pulling a Walter White from Breaking Bad while discussing the controversy around the swimmer’s performance. Costas doesn’t say anything that would inspire a libel suit against him, but he more than dips his toe into the controversy even while noting athletes such as Michael Phelps also experienced dramatic drops in times around her age. But the ways in which Costas plants doubts about her performance is fairly startling. If you want to believe Ye Shiwen earned her medals through doping, rather than mere hard work, Costas gave you plenty of reasons to indulge those beliefs even though he never accuses her of such things himself.
“Could you go for the knock-out blow if your opponent was sobbing?” That sounds like something John Kreese would ask the members of the Cobra Kai dojo. Instead, it’s what Trautwig asks after the Russians absolutely implode during the floor exercise. Aliya Mustafina, who had the first poor performance on the balance beam, recovers nicely during her floor routine. But subsequent performers buckle under the pressure, and then we get what feels like forty-five minute sequence of tiny Russian girls crying. It’s heartbreaking, but not in any way that makes me feel like we’re getting insight into the human spirit. The camera just lingers far too long, and the analysts treat the scene as if observing mourners at a funeral. This isn’t about drama, but rather exploitation. It’s ugly and unnecessary. Moreover, it helps sell the idea that the Americans won’t win the gold medal so much as the Russians just lost it.
From there, the march towards inevitability picks up steam, with the Americans turning in one strong performance after another in the floor exercise. “It’s like the entire arena was living this routine,” marvels Trautwig about Wieber’s performance. Well, that’s fucking ridiculous, because you could hear deafening cheers for another gymnast halfway through it. (I’m assuming the gymnast was from Great Britain, but because Great Britain doesn’t exist tonight so far as NBC is concerned, I’m only guessing.) By the time captain Aly Raisman takes the floor for the final performance, it’s essentially a ceremonial routine, which allows some real emotion to come across her face before the end of her time on the mat. The competition is over, but the story NBC wants to tell needs a final sentence. Enter Trautwig one last time, to provide a coda to “The Jordyn Wieber Story: “What a 72 hours she has been through. One of the sweetest things in sports is redemption.” He then continued,” I find I'm so excited, I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it's the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see Jordan and shake her hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams.” OK, maybe he didn’t say those last few lines.
With that settled, it’s once more unto the swimming breach, for the men’s 4 x 200-meter relay and a chance for Phelps to make Olympic history. Airing this now makes semi-sense: While I’d argue that the women’s team gymnastics is the bigger event in terms of a single Games, this race has its potential place in the entirety of Olympics’ history. Hicks and Gaines have done a good job all night explaining strategy and technique during these races tonight, and this race is no exception. That analysis helps, since the race itself is slightly anticlimactic: Lochte gets the Americans out to a large lead during the first leg and they never look back, stretching the lead out with each successive swimmer. On the upside? Seacrest didn’t jump in the pool to congratulate his BFF. On the downside? Andrea Kremer asks more inane questions in front of a sea of abdominal muscles. (“What was the strategy in terms of giving Michael a lead?” The answer? “Give him a lead.”) Phelps is never the most articulate of interviewees, but he’s quick to attribute a lot of his medals to teammates like the one beside him onscreen. It’s a trite statement, but delivered honestly.
The coverage winds down with the women’s gymnastics team receiving their gold medals. Afterwards, Costas conducts interviews with Phelps individually and the women’s gymnastics team as a whole. Wieber uses the word “redemption,” showing just how much on-script she is with the proceedings tonight. It’s a fitting end to a program that wants to remove as many variables from the equation. Luckily, sport itself is often resistant to such strict rules, providing moments of joy (Chad le Clos’s father), sorrow (those poor Russians), and humanity (Raisman’s mid-performance tears of joy). NBC managed to capture those moments seemingly despite its best efforts to wring them out of the proceedings. Hopefully it realizes as the Olympics march forth how exciting these events can be if they are allowed to speak in their own, unique, unpredictable ways.
- The camera that follows the divers from ten meters above the water to a few meters below is totally badass.
- All the chatter about the vault is to mock the announcers, not the vault itself. It was indeed awesome, but got discussed to such an extent that I had to note it.
- I’ll never know how gymnasts can concentrate on the balance beam, uneven bars, or vault when the music from the floor exercise is blaring.
- Pro tip: Even if you’ve avoided spoilers all day long, using Google to ensure you’re spelling the names of athletes correctly is a great way to break that streak.
- Trautwig giving DVD-style commentary to a wordless exchange between Douglas and Raisman was a little creepy.
- Phelps’ relaxed attitude towards his silver medal in the 200-meter butterfly either shows a man who has matured or a man who wants to eat a dozen Subway footlong subs right about now.