This is not simply a rant about how bad NBC’s coverage of the Olympics was. Anyone who has NBC and even remotely cared about the Olympics knows why NBC’s coverage was terrible.
This is a blog entry in which I try to figure out why. (The short answer is money. The slightly longer short answer is that all of our values eventually lead us back to money. Awesome.)
Possibility #1: People don’t actually like/have the attention span for sports.
Sports are one of the few things that get a strong emotional reaction out of me. I don’t know exactly why, but there is just something about the combination of sportsmanship, dedication, athleticism, teamwork, the joys of victory and the agony of defeat that gets me.
Basketball is my sports-watching poison of choice (you try growing up in Indiana), but I’ll obsess over pretty much any sporting contest if given the opportunity. This summer alone I’ve indulged in the French Open, the NBA Finals, Wimbledon, the UEFA Euro, the Tour de France, and the summer Olympics. The thing about the first five events is that I was actually able to watch them. I saw complete matches, complete games, even complete road stages.1
Enter: The Olympics, NBC-style.
In watching diving or gymnastics or field events or cycling, I never got to watch the full event. There were only 8 finalists in every individual apparatus event in gymnastics, and I didn’t even get to see 8 vaults. I saw the Americans’ vaults. I saw the medalists’ vaults. That was it.
The thing is, if I wanted to watch the Sportscenter highlights, I would. (Well, I actually wouldn’t, because Sportscenter didn’t have the rights to show Olympic highlights. Proving once again the almighty dollar is valued above all else, which misses the point of the Olympics entirely.)
I don’t know much about vaulting, and after watching the Olympics I feel like I know even less. I didn’t get to see the 8th place vault, so I have very little to compare the winning vault to. To appreciate a good vault, I need to know what a bad or mediocre vault looks like other than via Tim Daggett’s melodramatic responses.
One could argue that the reason NBC chose to give an abbreviated version of these events is because people don’t really care about gymnastics except at the Olympics. They don’t really know anything about the sport, and they only remember its existence once every four years. There might be some merit to that, except I’m never given the chance to like gymnastics because they don’t actually let me see any of it.2
I assume this argument has some ground because the media assumes that people have no attention spans, but that’s not some kind of biological necessity so much as it is us being products of our environment. I know my attention span is worse than it used to be, but I also know I am capable of sitting down and watching a two hour basketball game without having some kind of spastic fit or needing to see some kind of human interest story about why I should care about the point guard every ten minutes.
A more sinister reason for not encouraging us to become die-hard gymnastic fans is because right now, it’s not a money-making sports except during the Olympics. I worked at a university that had a national champion dance team, but few people at the university even knew this, because dance teams don’t bring in revenue. Basketball and football do. These are the sports we know, and our love of them is fostered because we spend money attending games, buying merchandise, and buying the crap that is advertised at games and on TV.
All I’m saying is that to presume people only care about the sports that are constantly paraded in front of them is to sell us all short. And to presume people watching the Olympics cannot become interested in a sport without attaching some kind of human interest story to it also presumes we have an aversion to sports in general and learning about new things.
I think I’m insulted.
[Edit: I was right to be insulted, and I gave NBC too much credit. NBC’s chief marketing officer said the following before the 2016 Rio games: “The people who watch the Olympics are not particularly sports fans. More women watch the games than men, and for the women, they’re less interested in the result and more interested in the journey. It’s sort of like the ultimate reality show and mini-series wrapped into one.” I don’t know where to start with how gross that comment is. See Vox’s article about NBC’s terrible coverage four years later.]
Possibility #2: The Olympics are only meant to foster nationalism.
Confession: I have actively rooted against one of my Alma maters in basketball for years. I was not swayed by any of the school spirit being generated around me when I was attending this university. I was also not moved to switch sides when I got booed at a game when I was wearing rival colors.3
Similarly, I don’t always root for the United States in sports. This doesn’t make me unpatriotic or anti-American. Sometimes I just like another athlete or team better in some capacity. As a spectator and a fan, I am allowed to make these decisions arbitrarily, and it has no bearing on the actual outcome of the event. Maybe I like Spain’s style of play better than Coach K’s. Maybe I think the cyclist from Kazakhstan has redeemed himself and his cycling career and deserves to win a gold medal at age 38. Maybe I think Tom Daley is cute.
With NBC’s coverage, my decision on who to root for was mostly taken out of my hands, because I didn’t actually see any other country’s athletes participating. Of course, this isn’t just something that is done in the U.S. Countries air the sports in which their athletes excel. I don’t have a problem with this. Weight-lifting isn’t as popular a sport in the U.S. as basketball is, fine.
I didn’t see any basketball team play except for the U.S. (and their opponents). In fact, I missed a lot of performances in sports that actually are popular in the U.S. just because I’m not meant to care about athletes from other countries. (Tennis comes to mind.)
I do understand that these athletes must feel a sense of pride at representing their country on the world’s stage, and I also understand the weird contact feeling of pride that we get as spectators. David Boudia went to my Alma mater (the one I root against in basketball), and there is a proud feeling knowing that someone from a similar background as me worked hard and diligently and persevered and came away victorious. You feel closer to them than you do to athletes from countries whose lives you can’t relate to.
That said, this isn’t the entire point of the Olympics. At the closing ceremony, all the athletes mingle together. They aren’t paraded in nation by nation behind their flag. This is supposed to be symbolic. Athletics brought them to the same stage, and they put aside cultural, religious, and political differences to participate in and compete honorably4 in the same events in front of the entire world. They have all trained for the same thing, and there’s a profound unity to it that defies political boundaries.
When I get an interview with Michael Phelps on my TV screen instead of a tribute to lives lost in the 2005 London bombings, well, I understand why people might think the United States is a bit too big for its britches.
Possibility #3: Time zones, advertising, and global media are incompatible bedfellows.
I get it. Prime time advertising is where the money is at. This is when more people are sitting in front of their televisions and tuning into whatever mind-number reality shows air in the summer. Not everyone is an unemployed doofus who just finished graduate school and has their whole day free (that would be me).
The problem, of course, is that the Olympics were held in London, which is five hours ahead of the eastern United States. This means that Michael Phelps was long-since tucked in bed before I was watching him win gold medals on tape delay.
This wouldn’t really be a big deal, except there is this thing called the internet. One of the things that happens on the internet is that news is spread really, really fast. I mean, Twitter played a factor in the Arab Spring. In the case of the Olympics, people were getting event results emailed to them (by NBC, if I understand correctly) before the event aired in the U.S.
I did not see a single gymnastics event without already knowing who won, and I didn’t actively seek out the results. All it took was glancing at the trending topics on Twitter or logging into my email on Yahoo.
Yes, I could have just avoided all online activity. Yes, I could have avoided the evening news. Yes, I could have just muted Bob Costas (and often do – Can we vote him off the island yet?). But that’s not the point. The point is that NBC was providing shoddy coverage of the most popular events assuming we live in a world that has 1992 technology.
The times they are a-changin’, and NBC is a dying network that ignored this in favor of traditional prime time advertising revenue. I don’t subscribe to a cable television service, so my only shot to (legally) watch the Olympics was over the NBC network.
Instead of being given the opportunity to watch live events in their entirety and to marvel at Olympic athletic performances, I mostly watched a quasi-patriotic highlight reel (the results of which I mostly already knew) and a whole lot of commercials for three hours every night.
I know where I stand. I just don’t like it.
P. S.- Can someone please get Ryan Seacrest off my television?