Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Media Literacy (Olympics Edition)

NBC Wanted To Blame The Skis

After successfully avoiding the opening ceremony I've been intermittently watching the Turin Olympics. I keep running into the figure skating which results in some furious remote action ("Anything but the frost ballet! 100 Greatest Child Stars? Sure.") but every now and then I manage to catch some skiing or speed skating.

On Sunday evening (or afternoon? I don't completely remember) I got to see one of my favorite events, the men's downhill skiing. As the competition unfolded the commentators started to make a big hubbub about how American favorite (and member of Maine's Carrabassett Academy class o' 95) Bode Miller had a) not inspected the course before his run; b) was alleged to have been out late in a bar the night before; and c) was going to use a brand new pair of skis used only once in a practice run. I understand that Bode's unconventional approach to his sport is the defining element of his TV narrative but the commentary seemed a bit odd. A nagging suspicion began to tickle my brain that NBC had taken advantage of the time difference and the delay in broadcast to tailor the package they put on air.

The competition took place at 12pm Turin time; 6am here on the American east coast. With the lack of live coverage here in the States the footage didn't air until 15 hours or more after the racing was done and dusted.

I of course had no proof nor anything to suggest that NBC was doing anything evil per se, but as I watched the broadcast I became convinced that the Peacock Network's producers had tasked the camera guys to shoot every possible storyline- Bode drunk, Bode cocky, Bode reckless and many more- in order to ensure that the event lived up to its pre-billing as the equivalent of the 100m in the summer games if Bode or any other American failed to medal. And throughout the coverage, up until the moment Bode finished a disappointing 5th, the commentators wouldn't shut up about his new skis. We had footage of the ski tech waxing 'em, we had breathless on-the-spot reports about how Bode was going to use them, and we had close ups of the skis themselves to the point where I began to wonder if Atomic had paid the producers. Relatively little mention was made of the crucial error Miller made in the last jump turn which added crucial 100ths of a second to his finishing time and which cost him the chance to win a medal. I suspect that would have been too boring and esoteric. Besides, they had all that footage and verbiage about his skis.

Perhaps it is the propensity of NBC to present the Olympics as a combination sporting event/reality show/soap opera, with tear jerker stories about sick grandmothers and stock athletic characters from central casting (the bad boy, the prodigy, the comeback, the tiny but steely woman) but I can never escape the feelings that a) I'm being manipulated and b) I can't be trusted to simply enjoy the events as pure sporting spectacle as opposed to some greater existential drama. If I want the fluff I'll turn to a newspaper or website, or wait for Bob Costas to pull his Edward R. Murrow of Athletic Competition routine in the studio afterwards.

I don't know why this irks me so- perhaps it is the lack of a "recorded earlier" logo on the screen, or the lazy commentating conventions of talking heads who know they will be edited before air to sound the best possible, or the decision of NBC to only show me the athletes they deem worthy of attention. Whatever it is, its the inability to watch the events in real time (even with someone else choosing the angles I see it from and the b roll that fills the lulls) makes me highly suspicious that I'm being sold a story line predetermined by network execs and advertisers. Perhaps the cow bell so beloved of ski fans should be taken from our hands and hung around our necks.

So if he feels like it, I call upon our resident Blogosphere sports broadcasting expert Mitch over at Handwashings to spill the beans....


mas said...

Admittedly, I haven't watched much of the Olympics either - instead I've been spending a lot of time working through the DVD of "Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge" that the Little Miss gave me for V-Day.

I agree - the time-delay is annoying, but even more so is the way NBC then delays things further by switching mid-event to a profile piece or another event altogether to keep you watching for another hour or so - to me, it's just not worth it.

But most of all, I hate the blatant USA Fever of NBC's coverage. I've watched very little of this week's events because I'm tired of being beaten over the head with American athletes. If an American isn't contending for a medal, chances are you won't see much of the event in most cases. The whole reason for the Olympics is to see the world's best athletes competing against each other, and I often feel like I only get one side of the story. If our guy/girl finishes fifth, all we hear about is his/her disappointment - as opposed to the great story of the "foreigner" who won, which is usually ignored or mentioned as a casual aside.

And lastly, why is the studio coverage of Costas framed so tightly? The camera is in on him way too close - I feel like he's invading my personal space.

weasel said...

Outstanding points. Just think how much better NBC's coverage would be if they had Alan Partridge anchoring.

Another thing that is driving me crazy is the lack of network/affiliate discipline about announcing results- I turned on 30 seconds early last night to check out the snow cross only to see our local NBC affiliate WCSH going apeshit over Mainer Seth Wescott's gold medal. I understand the excitement (and it will give Joan Benoit Samuelson a rest from being Maine's olympic champion) but I wish that they would have engaged brain before opening mouth/edit suite. There must have been a bunch of us up here wanting to watch the whole sequence pan out (and I wasn't particularly rooting for Westcott- I just wanted to see what all the fuss about this new event was. Preferably without knowing the result) who got zapped with Wescott's grinning mug as we clicked over for Costasramavision.

Country Mouse thinks I have my jock head on and I'm getting too wound up about this sort of thing, especially as she pointed out that I would have had to have missed an hour of coverage as nothing imperils her hour of CSI. But I mean, fuck's sake- the way the results trickle out throughout the day its like watching the groundhog olympics.

Jim said...

I remember being in Quebec City (for winter carival), god, could it have been '94? Got to catch coverage via CTV, the English-speaking Canadian TV network; they covered all the events, not succumbing to the "blatant USA Fever" (which in their case, would have been blatant Canadian fever).

While in Machias, I found that their cable provider also carried CTV, unlike my own provider, Suscom, that for some reason, thinks that French-speaking TV serves some benefit to ole' mono-lingual me.

youthlarge said...

so tired of nbc's us-centric coverage. but i am sorry i missed lindsey jacobellis show boating and falling on her ass!

weasel said...

Well coming from Britain I know all about blatant flag waving coverage- I think we invented it. Our star soccer/football commentator John Motson practically orgasms whenever England score and any failing is always the fault of the officials, the Germans, or the Argentinians- even if we aren't playing them. And the BBC/newspaper coverage of whichever British athlete is supposed to do well at the Olympics is just nuts. I was in the UK for 2002 Athens. The star of the hour was marathoner Paula Radcliffe- when she failed to finish the race I thought she was going to get hanged. The public lap it up. We became a nation of ice dance freaks after Torvill and Dean in 84, we all loved curling in 02.

Maybe its one of those paradox thingies- to decry blatant Americanism to the exclusion of other nations one has to be blatantly unaware of how other countries do things similarly. It doesn't make the flag waving- whoever is doing it- any less annoying though; the best Olympic stories are always about the underdog.

And another thing about NBC's coverage; they seem to be equating individual's failing to medal with national failure. To date at this Olympics the US team have won more medals than at any other Winter Games other than Salt Lake. Up until 2002 the US was a middle ranked winter sports nation, averaging 10-13 medals total. They got the home field boost in 02 that may have lead to unrealistic expectations among the ill-informed this time around. I think the story is less how badly the US has faired and rather how far the US has come, to the point where folks unrealistically expect a summer olympics style dominance.