Tuesday, August 16, 2016

NBC's sucky Olympics coverage, again

Complaining about NBC's bad Olympics coverage is a time-honored tradition of mine. Believe it or not, however, this time around I'm actually going to cut NBC a tiny bit of slack and say that, on a completely subjective level, their primetime coverage of the 2016 summer games in Rio de Janiero has seemed to suck less than their past efforts.

I attribute this to the simple reason that Rio de Janiero is only an hour ahead of New York, and so NBC has been broadcasting lot of events live (at least to those of us in the Eastern and Central time zones) during primetime. Live television coverage, by its nature, leaves little room for intrusive editing or long, tedious "human interest" features. Furthermore, the events that NBC has been broadcasting live - chiefly, swimming and track - are events where multiple athletes from multiple countries compete simultaneously, which lessens NBC's ability to relentlessly focus on American athletes to the exclusion of anyone else. What I've seen of NBC's daytime coverage as well as coverage on affiliate networks like MSNBC or NBCSN hasn't seemed horrible, either.

That being said, the primetime coverage still sucks. NBC is filling the gaps around the live events with their usual heavily-edited-and-abridged coverage of competitions that happened earlier in the day, such as gymnastics and diving, and there's still plenty of time outside of the live events for long and tedious human interest features or completely unnecessary interviews with Winter Olympics athletes. There's still the insufferable Bob Costas, the endless and repetitive streams of commercials, and the sickening layer of sap that is required of any NBC Olympic production. "Must See TV' it ain't.

More and more people seem to be coming to a similar realization: viewership is down as more people turn to live streaming options, the coverage itself is being called "the worst ever," and network executives are on the defensive. That, however, does not mean that NBC is going to change its formula for broadcasting the Olympics anytime soon: it's still attracting more viewers than anything else on television during the August doldrums, and as long as NBC sees a return on its $1.3 billion investment, it has no incentive to change the way it presents the games.

But why does NBC insist on presenting the Olympics in such an awful manner in the first place? Vox's Todd VanDer Werff explains, using the network's treatment of standout gymnast Simone Biles as an example:
Shortly before the games launched on August 5, John Miller, the NBC Olympics chief marketing officer, offered an explanation for why so many Olympic events — and particularly the opening ceremony — are aired on a tape delay, even for those who live on the East Coast, only an hour off the time in Rio (to say nothing of the West Coast, which gets everything on a tape delay).
Jonathan Tannenwald of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported the following comment:
The people who watch the Olympics are not particularly sports fans. More women watch the games than men, and for the women, they're less interested in the result and more interested in the journey. It's sort of like the ultimate reality show and mini-series wrapped into one.
It’s an idea NBC has offered before, including in press conferences I’ve attended over the years. It’s also one that is baldly sexist on its face, but one the network claims it can back up with market research. And while ratings for the 2016 games in Rio have sagged compared with those for the 2012 games in London, they’re still performing well. Clearly, most people are content enough to watch the product NBC offers.

But Miller’s statement about the type of viewers who watch the Olympics and what those viewers are most interested in gets at the heart of why NBC’s coverage is so lousy and why [NBC gymnastics commentator Al] Trautwig’s tweet was so defensive about Biles’s parents not being her parents.

The network had so much riding on the idea of Biles’s upbringing — and the idea that she had to overcome the unfitness of her biological parents on her way to gold medal glory — that Trautwig was unable to leave the narrative behind. By my hypothesis, it was an insensitive comment, yes, but one spawned from a relentless focus on telling the same story over and over again.

The problem with NBC’s Olympics narratives is that they seem perpetually stuck in the 1980s; that’s when the network first broadcast the games, with the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul.

And since the last Olympics broadcast on any non-NBC network were the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan (which aired on CBS), and NBC has the rights to both the Summer and Winter Olympics locked up through 2032 — including streaming rights — those narratives are likely to remain in use for a long, long time.

Without any competition, the network continues to fall back on the same tired storylines about men who are gritty competitors and women who manage to fill some traditionally feminine role in addition to being athletes (when it’s not suggesting their husbands are responsible for their success, that is).

NBC continues to value American success stories over almost anything else (to the degree that not a second of the men’s gymnastics team finals aired in primetime, since the US didn’t medal). 
Frequently, the only non-Americans we see compete in events like gymnastics are those who have direct bearing on NBC’s US-centric narrative.

And the network continues, above all else, to suggest that the Olympic stories that matter most are the ones that offer up a wholesome, usually white face of Middle America — even when reality gets in the way.
When you think about it, NBC's production philosophy - the games as story, rather than sport, the idea that the narrative behind the athletes (i.e. their "struggle") is more important than their actual physical abilities - is actually pretty insulting to its viewers as well as the Olympic athletes themselves. Little wonder more and more viewers are turning off the pre-packaged mush on TV and watching the livestreams on their laptop and iPads:
The irony of all of this is that NBC has a product that actually presents the Olympics in fairly straightforward fashion, as a sporting event where various countries’ hopes and dreams rest on their competitors, if only for the length of one race. Its Olympics streaming platform is a beautiful piece of software, allowing viewers the chance to just watch the events as they unfold, rather than edited to pieces and regurgitated for the primetime audience.

But the way NBC covers the Olympics on TV isn’t just unfair to sports fans, or to people who live on the West Coast, or to people who have social media and are spoiled on the results of events long before they’re broadcast. It isn’t just racist and sexist and wedded to certain socially conservative expectations of what makes a family.

No, it’s all of those things — and it’s awful, awful television.
Sports Illustrated's Richard Dietsch and Awful Announcing's Ken Fang evaluate the good and the bad of NBC's overall coverage so far; NBC's streaming platform, at least, is getting high marks. USA Today's Hemal Jhaveri lists four ways NBC can improve its Olympics coverage, which will never happen. When it comes to the Olympics, NBC is committed to suck.

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