Once every four years, I complain about television coverage of the Olympics. This year, when National Public Radio (NPR) reported that National Broadcasting Company (NBC) was trying a different approach, I was hoping not to have to complain. But tuning the dial, I found the same hyperbole, the same parochialism, the same jingoism that has dominated television coverage of the games for decades.
The broadcasts haven’t changed, but viewers have. We live in an era when news is available minute by minute, when television shows are watched via Netflix, online through websites like Hulu, via On Demand, through recordings made on DVRs, or from plain old DVDs rented from video shops. In fact, this last one is rapidly becoming extinct.
So much so that no one watches shows when they are actually on.
But NBC has not taken this reality into account at all. It is abiding by a stone-age model of television broadcasting wherein bombastic commentators tell viewers what to think. It is a model so ancient, it boggles the mind. Television, in the meantime, has made such strides that it has become an art form in its own right. The television revolution started with programs like “Six Feet Under” and “Sopranos” that set a new bar for quality and excellence. Television was no longer the poor cousin of cinema, but an altogether different medium, in which characters, stories, and settings could be explored in depth in a way that was impossible to do in a two or even a three hour movie. This realization was what got me hooked on HBO, which, as its slogan indicates, is not television. A truer tagline was never coined.
When viewers began to watch AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” they realized what TV was really capable of. Surrealistic sequences, Shakespearean acting (even though I personally am not fond of Shakespeare, it is still considered the gold standard for drama), and great storytelling mesmerized us. After “Breaking Bad” no one could conceive of going back to old fashioned television.
Except NBC and its tired business model. It still has commentators shouting at the tops of their voices while swimmers glide through water with such grace that you want to just watch them. But NBC never gave the viewers a chance to react to the display. There was in fact so much screaming going on that I was not surprised that viewers wrote in to NBC telling them to “shut the **** up.” Of course, they did that for the opening ceremony, but I think the message applies to all of NBC’s coverage of the Olympics.
There is an old axiom for writers, “Show, don’t tell.” NBC’s motto however seems to be just the opposite; it is so busy telling us stuff that we lose what little surprise or excitement we can summon up for these telecasts, particularly since we already know who won. I can visualize the commentators frothing at their mouths as a Niagara of words pour out. Why not shut up and let the viewer imagine? Why not let the picture tell the story? Why not introduce some art into the broadcasts by way of intelligent camera angles, surrealistic sequences, and emotional truths?
The actual games, on the other hand, have changed drastically since the cold war era, when the U.S.S.R. and the United States used to vie to show their prowess. What better testimonial to this than the fact that the Queen herself entered the digital age by actually participating in a skit? Just a decade ago, no one would have thought such a thing possible. If the British Royal Family can finally enter the twenty first century, why not NBC?
NBC does have a miserable excuse of a storyline for the games. A storyline constructed long before the competitions actually took place. A storyline built around a few white American athletes who NBC presumptuously wants us to bond with, like Michael Phelps and Missy Franklin. The network squanders away so much time showing replay after replay of their events and stretching out the thin plot that we miss important things like Great Britain’s sensational medals in track and field. Thousands of viewers complained about this and about NBC’s time-delayed coverage, but to what use?
NBC stuck to its game plan, not being spontaneous or creative, even as it urged the athletes to be so.
Then there is the matter of the commercials which interrupted the flow. We were told they are needed but how about coming up with some other ideas, like giving Google or Apple the right to show them online, in real time? In fact, some viewers apparently did manage to find such live broadcasts.
This was the first year that I tuned out while the Olympics were on. I used to look forward to them, but I just could not muster enough enthusiasm. There was no emotional hook for me. Besides every time I tuned in, I saw only the Women’s Beach Volleyball team hopping about in the sand wearing skimpy bikinis. We all know that the only reason NBC puts these events on during prime time is to titillate the male viewers who, I am willing to bet, could care less about the scores in these events. But did you know that Olympics rules dictate a maximum length for their panties? Now if that is not sexist, what is? Gloria Steinem, please comment!
Indian athletes, of course, were conspicuous by their absence. I am willing to bet that this will not be for long. That one day, India will burst onto the Olympic scene, dazzle the world with its excellence, and take all the gold. Why do I think so? Because India is hot now in everything else, like technology, music, film, literature, science, and social movements.
And when that time comes, I want an American coverage of the Olympics to be global. I also want the likes of Danny Boyle not only to direct the opening ceremonies but also the content of the television coverage. How about Vince Gilligan (creator of “Breaking Bad”), Matthew Weiner (“Mad Men”), James Manos (“Dexter”), or David Chase (“Sopranos”) to produce the shows?
The Olympics are important; they are more than about sports. They are our opportunity to see the world. But NBC’s world, tragically, still consists of Peoria.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. Visitwww.saritasarvate.com