From sitcoms to football games to commercials, everything on television tells a story, and NBC’s primetime coverage of the Olympics is no exception. Turning a sprawling sporting event held thousands of miles away into an emotionally compelling saga is a way to get viewers invested and keep them coming back for more. Of the nine sports—and 25 matches—that took place in Sochi today, three medal competitions were showcased in primetime: women’s skeleton, men’s super combined Alpine skiing, and men’s figure skating. Helped along by commentators, pre-packaged human-interest stories, and Meredith Vieira (filling in for Matt Lauer filling in for Bob Costas), tonight’s coverage attempted to simplify the complexity of the Olympics into a streamlined narrative. And it did so with varying degrees of success.
The biggest downside to narrative-driven programing is that often only one point of view is explored. Take, for example, NBC’s coverage of this year’s Opening Ceremony. Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira pointedly drew attention to Russia’s regressive policies against homosexuality and somewhat haughtily informed the audience that the ceremony glossed over the most violent, repressive eras of Russian history. On the one hand, Russia should absolutely be called out for its horrific treatment of the LGBT community, and it’s important to remember the bloody path Russia walked to become a world super power. On the other, every country sugarcoats its history when hosting the Olympics, yet not every country receives the criticism Russia did. For example, did commentators for the London Open Ceremony criticize Danny Boyle for glossing over England’s bloody, imperial past? Would Vieira demand that a US Opening Ceremony remind the world of slavery, Japanese internment, and the atomic bomb? If the games took place in New York would NBC bring in experts to discuss stop-and-frisk laws the way they have done occasionally for Russia’s anti-gay laws? Indeed, would they remind viewers that there are several US states that prohibit gay propaganda? The singular, slightly aggressive narrative of the Opening Ceremony—fueled by residual Cold War prejudices—left little room for such complexity or self-reflection.
Tonight that frustrating single-narrative was felt most strongly in the women’s skeleton final where the coverage focused almost exclusively on the two top American competitors. After coming back from retirement this year, energetic Noelle Pikus-Pace was overjoyed to win silver—leaping into the stands to hug her family after her final run. On the flipside, Katie Uhlaender had a devastating disappointment as she was bumped from the podium by .04 seconds. Their stories made for a compelling dual profile of Olympic joy and frustration, but the picture felt incomplete. Adjust the lens just a bit and this evening could have easily told the story of Lizzy Yarnold triumphantly winning Britain’s first gold medal at Sochi in her first ever Olympic Games. And while it’s heartbreaking to see Uhlaender lose by .04 of a second, that also meant Yelena Nikitina became the first Russian woman to win an Olympic medal in skeleton—on Russian soil no less. Adding Yarnold and Nikitina’s stories to those of their American competitors would have more accurately captured the international spirit that is so fundamental to the Olympic games.
While skeleton highlighted the pitfalls of focusing on a singular-narrative, men’s super combined skiing made a strong case in favor of NBC’s manipulative storytelling. Tonight’s skiing coverage struggled to tell any kind of compelling story and thus ended up feeling like a drag on the whole evening. The commentators didn’t properly explain the components that make up the super combined—a downhill run and a slalom run—nor did they provide a breakdown of what specifically makes one run better than the other (the runs are timed but how do skiers increase their speeds?). The coverage loosely focused on Americans Bode Miller and Ted Ligety, but neither managed to make it to the podium. For a skiing layman like myself, there was little to latch on to from either a technical or personal standpoint, and I found it hard to pay attention to various runs that started to look awfully similar. Narratives are an access point for obscure Olympic sports and without one, super combined remained inaccessible.
So perhaps it’s no wonder that figure skating remains the most popular winter event as it’s also the one that lends itself most easily to narrative storytelling. Unlike skiing and skeleton where the athletes’ faces are covered, figure skating is all about the personalities of its competitors. Not only are their faces prominently visible, they each offer up drastically different performances—inherently more interesting than seeing half a dozen skiers going down the same hill. The commentators also deserve credit for balancing the human-interest stories (as a child eventual bronze medal winner Denis Ten could only practice in winter because they didn’t have indoor rinks when he was growing up in Kazakhstan) with technical analysis (skaters need to enter their jumps with a certain speed in order to stick the landing). They also know when to shut-up and let the athletes’ routines speak for themselves.
Tonight’s figure skating coverage celebrated the top international talent in the sport. Canada’s Patrick Chan and Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu battled it out to be the first men’s figure skating gold medal winner for their respective countries. Meanwhile several talented competitors, including media-darling Jason Brown, were locked in a tight race for bronze. The coverage also carved out time to highlight the Olympic spirit of American Jeremy Abott; a devastating fall in yesterday’s short program knocked him out of medal contention, but he skated a beautiful long program tonight simply because it’s the Olympics and that’s what you do. NBC is selective about which skaters make it to primetime, but it built up empathy for all of those who skated tonight—ultimately embracing both the joy of Hanyu’s win and the disappointment of Chan’s second place finish. None of the three medalists skated perfect performances, and commentator Scott Hamilton admitted his slight frustration with the somewhat messy evening. Yet he also reminded the audience of the level of difficulty and the enormous pressure these athletes put on themselves; messiness is difficult to craft into a neat narrative, but it’s part and parcel of the Olympic games.
Moreso than most, this is a complex Olympics. It’s an event of international sportsmanship and unity taking place in a country that is anything but equal. Instead of rejecting that complexity, I suggest we embrace it. I think of the televised narrative of NBC’s primetime coverage as a starting point; between live streams, op eds, and interviews, fans have access to a myriad of ways to experience the games. There’s a story—and a country—behind every athlete, and this adorable tweet from skeleton gold medalist Lizzy Yarnold is a nice reminder that it’s often worth seeking them out.
- Another example of a complex issue with multiple points of view: Sarah Kauffman’s excellent piece on #SochiProblems. Kaufman suggests the snarky hashtag is an example of affluent journalists making light of problems that plague the daily lives of those living all over the world. Not being able to drink tap water for two weeks is annoying. Being forced to drink dirty tap water because you can’t afford a bottled alternative—like some of those living in Sochi—is a nightmarish reality.
- For those who appreciate the human-interest side of the Olympics, I quite enjoyed tonight’s Olympic Zone, a half-hour extended puff piece that airs before NBC’s primetime coverage. They played up the Valentine’s Day angle much more than regular coverage did.
- Jason Brown takes his 9th place finish like a champ—a great example of how to lose gracefully. Chicago media has been working hard to give me Jason Brown-fever (he’s from a Chicago suburb) and I think they’ve succeeded.
- It’s a shame they didn’t show any medal ceremonies tonight. I love hearing the national anthems of other countries.
- Winter sports are either about balancing/jumping in precarious situations (skating, skiing, snowboarding) or lying down and riding a slide (skeleton, luge). Weird.