The Televangelists: NBC's Olympics coverage could be so much better

Each Friday in The Televangelists, one of our writers examines the met and missed potential of television.

I’m going through withdrawal. After two weeks of reveling in the Olympics, I’ve returned back to “normal” life where gold medals, world records, and inspirational feats of human strength and prowess are few and far between. I might have to fire up my DVR every so often during the next few weeks to get another little fix… at least, until the 2014 Winter Games commence. Unfortunately, this means I’ll have to sit through NBC’s coverage of the 2012 Summer Games again.

NBC’s coverage of the 2012 Games was immensely successful — they’ve announced that the London Games were the most-watched television event in U.S. history, with more than 220 million Americans tuning in — but it also received plenty of criticism. (Following “#nbcfail” on Twitter revealed the complaints and vitriol directed at the Peacock.)

People disliked the time delay, which resulted in NBC spoiling much-anticipated Olympic outcomes. Their opening ceremonies coverage was criticized for, among others things, editing out a tribute to the July 7, 2005 London bombing victims to air a Michael Phelps interview. There was subtle denigration of non-American teams, particularly of the Russian women’s gymnastics team. NBC even received criticism for how they handled critics of their coverage when a journalist named Guy Adams was kicked off Twitter.

I certainly voiced my fair share of criticism, but hindsight is 20/20, and so I’d like to offer a few suggestions for how NBC could improve their coverage. So Bob Costas, Mary Carillo, Ryan Seacrest, et al., if you read this, please consider this less another exercise in #nbcfail, and more a constructive exercise in #nbciknowyoucandobetter.

The Olympics are full of great stories that we love just as much as the athletic displays. Who doesn’t love montages of famous athletes when they were kids, taking their first faltering steps into the sport they would come to dominate? Who doesn’t love hearing about the sacrifices required for athletic glory? Who doesn’t enjoy hearing about athletes like Oscar Pistorius who transcend seemingly insurmountable odds to make it to the world stage and change it forever? I get teary-eyed just thinking about it.

But there comes a time when enough is enough, when the coverage ceases to be emotional and becomes manipulative. When the segments cease being inspirational and instead, become something akin to cheap reality TV shocks. As the New Yorker’s Rachel Syme wrote regarding NBC’s handling of the women’s gymnastics competition, and America’s “Fab Five” in particular:

In essence, what NBC is producing is a reality-television program, with high stakes and teen stars, a daredevil version of “Gossip Girl” (or a less-fatal “Hunger Games”). They have chosen a theme song and cast the leads — the team competition broadcast continued to advance the narrative that Jordyn Wieber was a downtrodden soul in need of redemption, despite how ebullient and recovered she looked going into the team final. The time-delay on this year’s games has given NBC the cushion to create an even tighter arc. Gymnastics is a rare sport that can be edited to tear at the heartstrings — it is not possible to simply leave out a quarter of a basketball game, but it is normal in gymnastics coverage to to excise performances from other countries to craft a more seamless arc for the home team. The falls and crashes can’t be erased, but our interpretation of how much they matter can vary wildly depending on the storyteller. On Tuesday night, NBC barely aired the routines of athletes from other countries, making the women’s win seem like a fait accompli from the start (in fact, it was a close race with Russia through the balance beam, and the two Russians are strong contenders for the all-around).

These are great stories that can ennoble us. (One can only imagine the effect that watching young women like Gabby Douglas and Missy Franklin will have on the next generation of female athletes.) But milking such stories robs them of their power and risks turning them into mere cliché. Also, focusing primarily on a handful of stories — e.g., the Fab Five, Michael Phelps, Misti-May Treanor and Kerri Walsh — gives us a myopic view of the Olympics that has no room for some many other powerful stories because they don’t necessarily fit into a certain narrative.

Going solely on NBC’s coverage, it might be difficult to remember that the Olympic games are a world event, not just an American one. It’s good to root for the home team. But one of the Olympics’ great joys is that we can set aside political and cultural differences and be united by something greater. Yes, the winner’s anthem plays at the medal ceremony, but the  Olympics help us to forget about flags and the accomplishments of nations, and instead, celebrate how something like a wrestling match can bridge vast political differences.

Sadly, NBC’s coverage overlooked some of the Games’ most powerful stories. Unfortunately, because they didn’t involve American superstars, one can’t help but think that NBC deemed that they weren’t interesting enough. They include: Shin A Lam, the South Korean fencer who stood her ground for an hour to protest an unfair ruling; Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang, who completed his race on one foot after tearing his achilles tendon; and Turkish runner Merve Aydin who completed her race despite injuring herself. To the best of my knowledge, these stories received little-to-no coverage on NBC. And yet, their images are enduring testaments to what the Olympics represent, and speak to everyone regardless of nationality.

NBC spent over a billion dollars to acquire the London Games’ broadcast rights, and they more than recouped their investment. Which, if you’re feeling cynical, means they’ll just keep doing more of the same. But in keeping with the Games’ spirit, one hopes that NBC realizes that their Olympics coverage ought to be more about commercialization. I believe the Olympics are special, not just because of the amazing athletic performances, but because of how they provide us with a way to celebrate something in common with people around the world. Broadcasting that to millions of people is a sure moneymaker, but it is also an awesome responsibility that deserves the best efforts. And NBC, I know you can do so much better.

About Jason Morehead

Jason Morehead lives in the lovely state of Nebraska with his wife, three children, zero pets, and a large collection of CDs, DVDs, books, and video games. He's a fan of Arcade Fire and Arvo Pärt, Jackie Chan and Andrei Tarkovsky, "Doctor Who" and "Community," and C.S. Lewis and Haruki Murakami. He's also a web development geek, which pays the bills — and buys new music and movies. Twitter: @jasonopus. Web: http://opus.fm.


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