Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Thumbs Down For Olympic Coverage

By Brad Oremland

I mentioned last week that I didn't get into the Summer Olympics as much as usual this year. Much of the reason, I'm afraid, was NBC's television coverage of the London Games. I think complaints about U.S. Olympic coverage peaked in the late '90s and early '00s, when it seemed like more time was devoted to athlete profiles than to the Games themselves. This was before the explosion of widely-available cable channels, so it's not like viewers unmoved by a heart-warming story of someone's dyslexic brother could switch to some obscure NBC affiliate on channel 8000 and watch handball or whatever.

The problem got so bad that even casual viewers, the ones who were supposed to love this stuff, joined the ranks of the dissatisfied. And since then, the coverage has mostly been pretty good — until this year. In no particular order, the biggest problems with NBC's coverage of the London Games:

Substandard coverage of popular events and excessive focus on U.S. athletes

The one thing NBC did a great job of was getting sports on the air. Even the more obscure Olympic events got a fair of amount of coverage on NBC's army of cable stations. That's great, and while it's a little weird to find judo on MSNBC, as a sports fan, I appreciate it. In fact, the coverage of less popular events was far better than the coverage of popular ones. That part is a problem.

While fringe sports received thorough coverage on NBC's cable affiliates, the primetime sports, the highlight of the Games, got massacred. Do you enjoy Olympic swimming? I hope you didn't want to see anyone who wasn't from the U.S. Sometimes, NBC failed to stay with the race after an American finished, cutting from the pool to show a close-up of the winner and leaving viewers uncertain who advanced from the heat or won the bronze medal. Do you live for gymnastics? I hope you didn't want to see any of the teams that finished outside the top four. How about beach volleyball? You didn't want to see any of the matches except those involving the U.S., did you?

Of course, nothing gets sliced and diced more than track and field. Well, mostly field. If you enjoy the throwing and jumping events, like javelin or high jump, the Olympics are probably really frustrating, because all you see is the top three or four, mostly in the later rounds, and maybe the top American if s/he isn't already near the top of the leaderboards. For NBC to take some of the most popular events in the Games, things like track and swimming and gymnastics, and show viewers only a fraction of the coverage, or miss the end of races and ignore medalists from other countries, is unconscionable.

I'm not opposed to focusing on U.S. medal hopefuls. That makes sense in a U.S. broadcast. But focusing on them to the exclusion of other competitors is unacceptable in an explicitly and uniquely international sporting competition. This is one of the very few opportunities most Americans have to see Kenyan runners, Chinese divers, Romanian gymnasts, and Russian swimmers. Speaking of which, when you're so focused on the Americans who won gold and bronze that you cannot be bothered to show, even for a second, the Russian who won silver, you're seriously screwing up the Olympics. Likewise when you're so psyched an American won gold that you cut away to a close-up and viewers don't get to see who won bronze. How can anyone in sports television be so deaf and disrespectful of the sport?

Highlight the local athletes, by all means. But don't ignore everyone else.

Strange priorities

If you have a good cable package, it probably didn't bother you that popular sports like soccer and tennis were on NBC Sports instead of the main station. But it was weird to see the women's gold medal soccer match on an obscure cable channel while the bronze medal match for water polo was on NBC. Tennis matches featuring big stars like Serena Williams and Roger Federer didn't get to primetime until the gold medal matches. Even basketball often got that treatment, though I found that more understandable, since some of the games were blowouts.

Maybe I just underestimate the popularity of sports like water polo, but for viewers without NBC Sports, or those who simply trust NBC to put the major events on its network channel, you may have missed some of the highlights of the London Games.

Television coverage not sorted by event

Whether browsing on your television or struggling through NBC's mess of a website, it was not easy to tell when your favorite events would be on. And if you wanted to record anything and watch it later, I hope you have a huge DVR, since most daytime coverage was in blocks of 6-12 hours. Heaven forbid they break it down into individual events, or even smaller blocks of mixed events.

Way too much switching between events

While daytime coverage was grouped into huge, unwieldy blocks, at least the event coverage was fairly consistent; they wouldn't split two sets of volleyball and show a soccer match in between. But in primetime, that's exactly what happened.

Watching the network's primetime coverage was a serious headache. Unless you really want to devote four hours every day to watching the Olympics, you have to pick and choose which events you're going to watch. For me, that's mostly tennis and the various races (swimming, track, etc.). For you, maybe it's gymnastics and volleyball, or basketball and water polo, or whatever. But if you have anything else at all to do with your life, you can't watch everything.

Unfortunately, NBC chose not to block together similar events. They'd show a swimming event — sometimes multiple heats for a prelim, but probably just the race and an awkward post-swim interview with Andrea Kremer if it's a final — then go to commercial and come back with gymnastics. After the next commercial, diving. Then back to swimming, then beach volleyball, then balance beam, and so on.

That means you're either (1) recording the events, praying you don't find out what happened, and going for your fast-forward button so often you get carpal tunnel syndrome, or (2) getting up every time there's a commercial and periodically wandering back in to see if something interesting is on. Either way, it's annoying. I guess the network's theory is that people who are mostly interested in one sport will stick around to watch the others if they don't show all the events at once. My theory is that they're pissing people off. Show all the swimming (or gymnastics, or track, or whatever) in one or two blocks, uninterrupted except by commercials, and it's a lot easier for viewers to build enthusiasm about the Games.

Too many commercials

Honestly, this is less about the volume of ads than the frequency. During the primetime broadcast, it seemed like they cut to commercial after every event. I'm willing to sit through a slightly longer break if it means getting to watch more than one event at a time. It's hard to build enthusiasm when everything keeps getting interrupted. The constant switching between sports didn't help, either.

Excessive focus on the big stars

Nothing in sports is more compelling than a great underdog. My favorite event from Beijing was the women's marathon, won by 38-year-old Constantina Dita. No one paid her any attention before the race, and even when she went ahead on a breakaway, everyone figured she'd never keep it up. The longer she held on, the more compelling it became, the oldest woman in the race going ahead and staying there, winning an event she had no business in.

In a two-hour race, you've got time to learn about an athlete who surprises you. But most events don't work out like that, and if the only person you've heard about underperforms, you can get sort of lost, unsure who that is in Lane 8 that might just win this thing. NBC got repeatedly burned by that in the first week of the Games, when Jordyn Wieber and Michael Phelps fell short of expectations in their early performances.

The Olympics are going to produce star athletes and great stories. That's the nature of sports, and of the Olympics in particular. The process doesn't need any help from television networks, and this year, NBC's coverage made it harder to find new heroes and unlikely stars, not easier or more enjoyable.

It would also be nice if the second-tier U.S. athletes, the ones who win bronze or finish out of the medals, weren't treated as sidecars to people like Missy Franklin and Allyson Felix. I'm not blaming Franklin or Felix, or any of the big stars. It's a poor reflection on no one but NBC that Kremer interviews their fellow Olympians and only wants to talk about the gold medal winners. Also, it would be great to let the athletes catch their breath before you shove a microphone in their faces.

Disrespect

What ties all these problems together is lack of respect. The people in charge of NBC's coverage clearly are not sports fans. They don't care about sports fans, and they don't respect the sports. This is ESPN's biggest problem, too: the networks believe, and I suppose they're probably right, that sports fans are going to watch regardless of how the broadcast is treated. It's the casual viewers they're after, the ones who don't really care about sports most of the time.

That's why we get the deep background on a great story like Missy Franklin or Gabby Douglas. That's why Bob Costas and Andrea Kremer constantly hyped the big stars like Ryan Lochte and Phelps. They assume you won't care about the events, but maybe they can get you to care about the people. I get that, but I don't understand how someone involved in sports broadcasting can be so blind to the appeal of sports. The stories pull you in, without any artificial enhancement. Plenty of medals have meant more because we know what the athletes went through to get there. Dan Jansen. Kerri Strug. But you don't always need a story.

Dita's marathon in 2008 was compelling just from one number: 38. Missy Franklin was a great story without hours of coverage devoted to her parents and classmates. In any sport, but especially in the Olympics, it's easy for viewers to connect to the athletes. Everyone understands a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, everyone understands being rewarded for years of hard work to become the best, everyone understands being honored to represent your country, to hear the anthem play and know it's because of you.

Everyone understands those things — except the people who make broadcast decisions for NBC. They need to radically rethink their approach before the 2014 Winter Games.

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