Perspective is minimal on NBC's Games

by Rick Kushman

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

14 August 2008


We’re talking Olympic TV today, because at the moment, what else is there? And the first point is the worn-out carping from sportscasters and writers that the prime-time show on NBC is not live.

Short summary: Let it go. These Games are in China. What do you expect?

Perspective is minimal on NBC's Games

I know that in sportscaster school, they have a class - Complaining the Olympics Aren’t Live 101 - but in this case, it’s so completely not a big deal. We’ll get to more on that in a bit, but let’s detour for a couple of broad thoughts on the coverage of these Beijing Olympics.

Other than during the super-duper (if lip-synced) opening ceremonies, there has been absolutely no perspective about the larger context of these Games. I’m not saying every time Michael Phelps wins another race, someone should say, “Remember, life is complicated here in China.” But now and then, when the Chinese women’s gymnastics team wins, or when the announcers talk about the majestic Olympic facilities, or when someone does a live shot from Tiananmen Square, maybe NBC should put into context the relative low value of women in China, or the impressive and proud sacrifices people in China made for those Olympic stadiums, or how Tiananmen carries a complex legacy, including the protests of an authoritarian government.

Along the perspective line, however, NBC and its cable nets have done a generally admirable job of showing a decent number of non-American athletes, and yeah, you did sense some qualifiers in that sentence. Still, it’s mostly good.

It’s always a knee-jerk response to criticize U.S. reporting as being American-centric, which it is. But in truth, we’re seeing a far more varied lineup of athletes than ever.

A particularly good move has been the decision to give Chinese athletes a ton of American TV time.

As sports fans, that’s a fun thing, because you want to hear how the crowd reacts to them. And as global citizens, that’s good, too, because the more we see of people, the less frightening and the more human they become. Since we’re going to be doing business with China for a long time, we might as well know them as actual people, and this helps.

Worst bit of the Olympic coverage, I mean ever: MSNBC’s “Olympics Update.” It’s supposed to be a wrap-up show after 12 hours of MSNBC coverage, but it’s just juvenile and nasty.

It runs at 2 p.m. in the West and it’s anchored in New York by MSNBC’s Tamron Hall, who treats the sports and events surrounding the Games with a smarmy, gossipy tone like she’s on “Access Hollywood.”

In Beijing, Tiki Barber and Jenna Wolfe, both “Today” show correspondents, are supposed to add context and personality, but that mostly involves Wolfe’s Mean-Girl insults - about coaches, athletes, even a weightlifter who got hurt - and her saying, “This is what bothers me.”

You feel bad for Barber, who at least tries to be professional, because they all end up sounding like adults trying to be cool teens. But they aren’t funny enough or insightful enough to be anything but icky.

OK, back to the live vs. tape delay.

The decider in this debate is, first of all, ratings. These Games are averaging around 30 million viewers, and some West Coast markets are among the highest in viewership. The simple translation of those ratings is that most people prefer being home on their couch to watch the Games.

I know for most sports, I want everything live, even if I record the game or race. There’s a purity to that, a feeling that we’re more part of the action. Plus, you don’t have to work to avoid hearing results.

But the Olympics are different. There’s too much to show, and Beijing is half a day ahead of the United States. What is NBC supposed to do? Already it persuaded the Olympic committees to schedule some swimming and gymnastics finals at 10 a.m. in China, so they can air live at 10 p.m. on the East Coast.

But NBC packages its prime-time show and also uses those top events as a lure. For the West, that means a three-hour delay. The easy thing is just turn off the BlackBerry and stay away from the e-mail for a bit.

As for the rest of the day, lots of sports are indeed live on the cable channels, and even more are live online. (Though, have I mentioned how impenetrable NBC’s Web site is?)

But for sportscasters and writers - to be fair, including some of my friends at my newspaper - showing everything live is a catechism, an unbreakable tenant no matter what the circumstance. Complaining that the Olympics aren’t live is as fundamental a reflex as giving the score of a baseball game.

The result, however, is to get readers and viewers riled up, even when there’s no solution. NBC can’t show swimming live at 7 p.m. when the broadcast doesn’t start until 8 p.m. (That start time involves some major financial agreements with local stations.) NBC can’t repackage the show for the West because the cost and effort would be massive.

Everyone wants sports to be simple and untainted by outside concerns, but that’s just not realistic. Sports are, first of all, a business. Fans, advertisers, networks and the athletes are all part of a formula that starts with money. That’s true of the Olympics, too. Someone has to pay for everything from the new stadiums to the satellite links.

NBC’s prime time is also a business - the network paid $894 million for the TV rights, after all - so it’s unfair to demand that NBC seriously damage itself financially. And I say that as a severe critic of many ways NBC operates.

The best thing all of us on the media side can do is to put it in perspective and help readers, viewers and fans find the best way to enjoy the Games. Plus we can warn you to stay away from that horrific MSNBC highlight show.

Topics: olympics
//Mixed media