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Olympics 2012

Everybody loves the Olympics – so why don’t we get the exciting, imaginative television coverage these Games deserve? In this photo, the US Women's Gymnastics team pose with NBC Sports' Bob Costas in London on July 31, 2012. (AP Photo/NBC)

Why do we care so much about the Olympics?

I mean, they must really matter to us, because NBC’s television coverage is enough to make you spit cake at your HD screen. Yet the television ratings are through the roof. The first four nights averaged 34.8 million viewers, on pace for the highest U.S. audience since Atlanta in 1996, and the highest for an Olympics not based in the U.S. since Montreal in 1976. Yes, they are showing more events live on channels like Bravo and NBC Sports than they ever have before. But the biggest events are still tape-delayed and packaged manipulatively to wring maximum drama out of every medal.

Gymnastics and swimming are overhyped and overexposed, while sports like sailing, kayaking, judo and fencing are rarely shown live during the day and are virtually invisible in prime time. Random celebs who have no Olympic background, from Ryan Seacrest to John McEnroe, are trotted out to talk about Twitter and Facebook and beach volleyball bikinis, getting more airtime than the two Olympic athletes thrown out of the Games for making racist tweets or the athletes in those bikinis. And don’t you just love dodging spoiler alerts all day long so NBC’s prime-time broadcast holds a modicum of suspense that might keep you awake till midnight?

We love the Olympics, the ultimate reality show, with all its attendant action, heartbreak and tears, plus a healthy injection of patriotism thrown into the mix. It’s heady stuff. Justin Bieber, Anne Hathaway and Taylor Swift watch the Games. (They’re all fans of Missy Franklin.) Samuel L. Jackson watches the Games. (According to his amusing tweets, he’s a fan of everything, from soccer to ping-pong to water polo: “As dope as always!”) My 87-year-old mother watches the Games, as does my 20-year-old son. I frankly don’t know anyone who doesn’t watch the Olympics. Can you imagine if the coverage were actually superior?

I’m not even going to complain about the endless commercials. Hey, NBC spent $1.18 billion for the rights to these Games. That’s before all the production costs. It looks like they might almost break even. So I can live with the commercials. Nor does it chafe my drawers that they don’t show everything live. I think it’s a mistake, but I’d probably just record the live events on my DVR during the day and watch them in the evenings anyway.

What infuriates me is the lack of imagination, the numbing sameness of the prime-time coverage. If NBC insists on packaging the Olympics, at least let the package showcase a little variety.

Surprise us! You can make any sport interesting, even fascinating, for 20 minutes. When I was covering Olympics in other countries, I used to turn on the TV in my hotel room and flip around between Olympic sports. (Most countries telecast all events.) I remember watching skeet shooting in Beijing (the commentary was in Mandarin) for half an hour, marveling at each little purplish puff. (The clay pigeons have a puce dye in them for easier identification.) Table tennis is an absolute marvel at the Games.

There doesn’t have to be an American, or even a medal, at stake. Show us the sport. And take a lesson from NASCAR. Put a tiny camera on a fencer’s helmet. Better yet, put a camera on one of the fences in the eventing competition, so we can see those beautiful horses jump right into our living rooms! Put a camera in a rowing scull, or on a sailboat, or a canoe. Show us some mountain biking. Get a camera in the field hockey goal. How about an overhead shot of the trampoline?

That’s right, trampoline, mountain biking and field hockey are all Olympic sports. Not that you’d know it by NBC’s coverage. So are handball, modern pentathlon and Taekwondo. So many sports, and so much time … 17 days’ worth of time.… But NBC takes the safe, easy road by devoting almost all of its prime-time coverage to gymnastics, swimming, track and field and, sadly, basketball.

Look, I covered gymnastics. I love gymnastics. But I don’t need to see the little girls marching from one apparatus to the next. I don’t need to see them waiting for their scores, wringing their tiny hands. I don’t need to see shot after shot of their parents. And I certainly don’t need to see Ryan Lochte or even the delightful Missy Franklin doing lazy turns in the warm-up pool between their events. I understand that the TV world is intent on manufacturing and following every eye-twitch of its anointed “superstars.” (Didn’t quite work out with the Lochte-hype, did it?) But what most of us really want to see is competition. Even if we don’t understand its rules, we’d rather see the judo matches of the inspirational Kayla Harrison of Wakefield, Mass., who became America’s first judo gold medalist, than listen to another tedious, unenlightening poolside interview with a breathless Michael Phelps just after a race.

If only we, the Olympic faithful, could convince NBC to stop dumbing down its coverage. Let us learn something new. Show us something fresh, something we’ve never seen before. Every Olympian has a story. Every medal is won with sweat, sacrifice and tears. Every loss is, in its way, heartbreaking. It’s not just the gymnasts who cry. It’s not just the sprinters who thrust their finger in the air and exult at being number one. It’s not just the swimmers who put their hands over their mouths and beam, eyes shining, their dreams realized.

It happens in every sport. It never gets old. It’s why we care. It’s why we watch.

Tags: Film/TV, Olympics 2012

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • Alyson

    Amen!

  • mollydog

    X2

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  • Kate

    Perfectly stated. Gold for Swift.

  • vandermeer

    I think NBC is doing a great job and I’ve been annoyed with coverage in the past. Great to have coverage on NBC and MSNBC. Sorry but I can’t agree with EM Swift.

  • Eric

    I was just mentioning this to my wife last night. Specifically, wondering why NBC can’t manage to focus on the variety of competition, which embodies the spirit of the Olympics. This is their opportunity to expose Americans to potentially unfamiliar sports (and perhaps capitalize on it with additional coverage in non-Olympic years). We all know it’s a ratings game, but I honestly believe if they were covering a wider variety with exhilarating, dramatic competitive situations (and let’s face it, it’s everywhere at the Olympics – is it really that hard to do?), they’d have more viewers.

  • Grace

    Agree in general about prime time coverage, but this morning has included table tennis, men’s volleyball, and 50m rifle all with commentary. I wish all the online options had commentary for those who prefer to watch live.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=574232735 Kristen Hanssen Goodell

    some of my favorite moments have been watching early weekend mornings while at the gym. Biking (OK, admittedly not great on TV but still, I was really interested!) Equestrian events, and I’m ALWAYS happy to see Roger Federer. He is to me like women’s beach volleyball is to my husband…

  • bikerfay

    I agree wholeheartedly. I watch some things live, and catch updates online, because I can’t tolerate the inanity sandwiched between commercials at night. It’s gotten so I mostly DON’T watch at night because I can’t bear to listen to another interview with Michael Phelps or wait around till I can watch Usain Bolt win the 100m, never sure when that will be.
    NBC turned me off on the opening ceremony — cutting into the great show with stupid commercials, editing out portions, and then the inane commentary. It’s only gotten worse since.

  • privatecitizen66

    NBC is showing what they know the American public will watch…I don’t care about table tennis or judo or women’s boxing. I’m shocked that these are even Olympic sports. I do want to see the gymnastics girls wring their tiny hands. And NBC gave me the opportunity to watch it LIVE online streaming. Skeet shooting as an Olympic sport? You have got to be kidding me. I’ve been watching the Olympics for years and didn’t know this and could not care less.

  • gail R

    The Olympics changed for me when they started using professional athletes (basketball etc) instead of college kids…was winning the MOST important aspect of the Games? Apparently. The justification that other countries teams were essentially “pros” does not cut it for me…we took away any chance for any amateur athlete to compete at the Olympics and gave it to a bunch of overpaid millionaires who are already established their careers.

    • Guest

      You are totally off the mark and obviously don’t understand how the foreign athletes are supported. Read up.

  • http://www.facebook.com/vickibboston Vicki Lynne Boone

    I couldn’t agree more. The James Bond bit last night and the Kilt fitting last week were all wastes of time and the sameness of the coverage is sad.

  • Jim

    Yes, tired of them talking about the same people over and over and over again. Only covering what they “think” people are interested in and not showing the more obscure sports. And, not highlighting ALL of the people. I was watching one of the track events and they focused solely on the American and Jamaica teams for more of the reporting…completely ignoring 6 other countries competitors…sometimes mentioning a few names, but then leaving like the last two people on the list completely out…not even a name mention with country. It’s so biased towards American competitors, it’s ridiculous. And, ALL the same sports, they don’t even mention the other event that went on during the day when you were at work.

  • Jim

    As for the ratings comment, it’s not hard to get ratings for the Olympics when everyone else is just playing repeats. Show variety and stop dumbing down the American people. Not everyone in the country wants to sit around chatting and watching the crap shows like reality shows and “celebrity” hijinks.

  • neilcn

    just FYI, many of the camera ideas you suggest are actually happening! I’m loving the live coverage of all the amazing sports, across twenty free to view channels set up specially for the olympics, and all are free from adverts. ITS AWESOME! I’m a Brit, who usually thinks the US has Britain beaten in terms of quality and customer service, but the BBC coverage of the Olympics has (apparently) put the NBC coverage to shame this time :)

  • Jenny Nelson

    I couldn’t agree more. I was just in Sweden and watching the games on TV there is exciting and engaging. That’s because the coverage is of the actual Olympic events and not a bunch of human interest stories. And you see a wide variety of events on prime time — many more than I ever saw in the U.S.. I’m back now and can barely stand to even turn on NBC because I truly feel like I’m being manipulated. It’s sad.

  • kminbolton

    Finally someone expressed what I’ve been grousing about for the last several Olympics! I’ve watched the Olympics from other countries and they all show the Olympic events, all of them. From here in the USA, if there’s not an American competing, good luck.

  • Kayaker

    I agree although you didn’t mention the women’s beach volleyball – every night, several hours long! Come on! There’s so much more going on at the Olympics.

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  • BostonBob

    One of the most fascinating things about the Olympics is seeing nearly every nation in the world unite in one place for one peaceful purpose – sport. How amazing is that?

  • GOPlover

    I can’t believe the headline and can’t believe this author is watching the same thing I am. I think this coverage is the best, by far, of any olympics coverage I’ve seen. What is striking to me is that NBC has spent a lot of time and effort to get announcers who understand each event we are watching and are able to comment, in detail, on the level of play, strategy, individual players, etc. Previous olympics aren’t even close. Have you actually watched what’s going on, Swift?

  • mmug

    Aargh! The women’s volleyball gold medal match says it all for me – even though it’s a “desirable” sport, we saw the last half of the first set (US seemed to be in complete control), then jumped to set 4 (!), where the US women were fighting to stay in the match, having dropped (off camera) two sets. How did that remarkable turnaround occur? Don’t really know, as the commentary focused on the existence of the change in momentum, but not what happened. It was easy to guess the results once they jumped to the fourth set – it was too late in the broadcast to show both the end of that set and any play in a potential fifth set, so the US women must have lost. I agree that the coverage was horrible – sappy commentary, spotty coverage, and the fact that almost all of the “inspirational” stories were about Americans. My highlight? Al Michaels’ comment (“test of the Emergency Broadcast System”) after NBC broadcast the Telemundo announcer’s reaction to Mexico’s soccer goal.

  • Deanlie

    When I was a kid they used to show every entry in the bobsled and the slalom, and none of the interviews, and I liked it. I’d like to see the kind of coverage Swift is asking for — but NBC does a lot of market research to see what coverage is going to get them the most viewers, so I think we’re in the minority.

  • miguel

    Very well said — NBC’s prime time coverage is a joke. I have enjoyed slightly more variety on NBCSN and occasionally on MSNBC, including archery, shooting, taekwondo, badminton… I have to admit that I *have* been pretty impressed by the variety of events that are available online (as long as you have a full cable package). It’s the online coverage that I’ve enjoyed the most over these past two weeks.

  • Lilee1

    The article supports the aristocracy. It says in essence that the masses are too stupid (and we are) to defend the basic freedoms unique to this country and the leisure class, now America’s unfettered chancellor, too perverse.
    When institutions become powerful their priority becomes those within and not the services they were created to perform. Educational institutions are about retirement and tenure, not education. Medicine about profit, not healing. Regulators about cheating for short-term gain for their favored few and not about a safe products and an even playing field. And of course the most frightening institution is the military.
    Once these institutions hit a certain tipping point the USA will become like communist Russia, China, India and all the world’s dysfunctional nations. American domestic spying is now an institution. Paranoia and fear of ones own people is a symptom of a corrupt government and we are there. Product production through exploitation is easy. Having a nation where life is worth living for the majority is hard.
    Citizen’s United made the monied minorities cancer impossible to stop. LBJ’s reforms are gone with poverty this year surpassing the 1966 levels. It’s only going to get worse for we baby boomers and our children. America as we remembered it will crumble and disappear and our grandchildren will live in the shadows of the decaying viaducts.

  • justsayin

    I agree. I had the luxury of being able to watch much of the Olympics in the daytime when the competitions were shown on four channels. I saw sports I had never seen before along with commentators who knew the sport and explained both the rules, the goals and the action. But the evening fare was disappointing for the reasons stated so well above.

  • Longtime Olympics viewer

    Swift’s request that NBC refrain from dumbing down its coverage, start to innovate using available technology for capturing unique perspectives, and think outside the box to broaden its scope of events covered echo my sentiments to the letter.

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