Olympics get bronze

I haven’t watched the Olympics or heard the slightest buzz about them this year. And I’m certainly not alone, as American Idol and even Grey’s Anatomy beat the games. The Times talks about NBC’s weakness and others’ counterprogramming but I think it’s a bigger story than that, about:

* The end of the Big Event — we’re no longer captive to the coverage or the hype because we exercise ever-increasing choice. This doesn’t mean there will be no Big Events (see: SuperBowls) but there will be fewer.

* The ubiquity of instant information — media no longer controls the timing of the story and the basic news is a commodity available anywhere immediately.

* The primacy of the niche — the Olympics are, in a sense, the ultimate niche event as some watch curling and some watch ice-dancing and nobody wants to be forced to watch it all and that is the natural state of media.

* The disillusionment with Olympic hype — we don’t buy the narrative of nobility as scandals and greed — reality, in other words — take over.

The value of the Big Event will continue to decline as the value of big declines.

: LATER: Quickly, good comments are coming in on fatigue with both NBC and the Olympics.

  • Let’s not forget the outstanding team coverage by the network. Everything NBC does is connected to the Olympics, which also subverts the story. You would almost expect anchor Brian Williams (I think that’s his name and I really don’t care to search for it because he matters so little) to report on a Chicago apartment building fire in which several are injured and some how find a tie-in to the Olympics. And, yesterday, I discovered one of the gold medalists was a slime-ball mal-ware provider. There’s nothing like corruption at the top all the way through to the jocks on the ice. However, it’s good material for John Stewart. Oops! Dead-eye Dick Cheney bounced The Daily Show’s coverage of the Olympics.

  • Gross, unfair generalizations:

    Don’t care which contestant wins because we can’t tell them apart. “The dude from Norway won. Which one? The one with the unpronouncable name. Which one? The one with the blue outfit. Oh.”

    Can’t tell the difference between a winning performance and second best in most sports. “Wow, that ski jumper went a whole extra half meter!! He’s either the best or got some help from the wind.”

    Similarly, you really only need to see one bobsled run and one luge run and you’ve seen them all. I saw a bobsled run a few olympics ago and I remember it: they push it, they jump in, it goes down the course. So I don’t need to see another one for a few more olympics.

    And it really bothers me how one of the really special skills in bobsled is jumping in the goddamn sled. “Oh he didn’t get all the way in right away!” Are you kidding me, that was the difference? The race is over before it began because the dude got his leg caught up on the handle?

    Races are fun because you can see competitors racing each other for the finish line. Not so most winter competitions which are against other competitor’s TIMES.

    Women’s hockey is really BAD hockey! Sorry, but it’s true!

    All sports that are judged, a la figure skating and freestyle, are fake.

    I can’t for the life of me see how brushing the ice in front of a curling stone is going to do anything at all. It’s a big heavy stone and it’s moving over ice, you aren’t going to change its motion by sweeping. Please.

  • Max

    I can understand the criticisms of the various sports that make up the Winter Olympics, but even if you are predisposed to like the sports, as I am, NBC’s packaging of the event makes it almost impossible to enjoy.

    Everyone talks about how we already know the results of the events before we get to see them on TV, and this is a huge problem, but even if I somehow manage to stay in the dark by the time primetime rolls around, I’m still disappointed. Here’s why: the events are edited in such a way that you get no sense of the scope of the competiton. They just show the “important” competitors, i.e. the Americans and whichever non-Americans medal. So, if they show some random Sweedish guy’s slalom run early on, you know that he eventually medals, otherwise why would NBC have included his run in the package since they never show any of the “extraneous” action for these events. It makes it impossible to feel the excitement you want when watching a sporting event, the sense that anything can happen and that the ultimate outcome is unknown.

    What I want to know is why can’t I (for a small fee even) watch the full uncut competitions (live or taped) over the Internet so I can enjoy them as I might enjoy any baseball or football game?

  • Arthur

    Some other thoughts: Too many one-on-none events: see bobsled post above, luge, skeleton, every alpine skiing event except snowboard cross, and, of course, that riveting figure skating. I also think the alternating 2-year summer/winter schedule has made the Olympics into a lesser event. There’s also the gradual awakening that the Olympic organization isn’t a nice little NGO or offshoot of the UN, but instead, a money-grubbing bunch of bribable “sports enthusiasts”. Then there’s the over-hyping (I heard the finish of the men’s snowboard cross described as “one for the ages” last night), the endless up close and personal stories, and the endless tease so that just as you get interested in one event, they go to another sport so you’ll keep watching until the one you just got interested in comes back on. Fortunately, I live close enough to Canada to get the CBC on my cable system. Yes, there’s some Canadian boosterism, but at least they concentrate on the sports. I think that the lack of general interest in the whole Olympics “movement” is demonstrated by the empty seats in both Torino and last summer’s games in Athens.

  • JD

    I love the Olympics. Or maybe, I used to. Things have changed.

    I went the closing ceremonies in SLC. Tickets were $850. I got a freebie from someone’s company. But honestly, if that’s any reflection of overall ticket prices, no wonder the stands are not full.

    Also, the continuing revelation about the ugliness of the OC, the bids by cities for games, the waste and all has spoiled it for me alittle.

    And there’s something about this year’s NBC coverage that is not right. I also can watch CBC, and it’s better. Maybe it’s because they let you watch an event, rather than little snippets. I don’t know.

    Also, if I never hear Bode Miller’s name again, it will be too soon. He’s an arrogant loser. Enough already.

    I saw the summer Olympics on British TV while in London, and loved it.

    I just can’t quite figure out what’s wrong this year. I simply don’t care to watch.

  • Adam

    Here’s what bugs me about what the Winter Olympics have become. Yesterday morning on the Today show, Al Roker asked the “US 2 man luge partnership that lost” (I think that’s their real name) if they have full time gigs. The answer? No. They luge full time. WTF? Who pays for that? What the hell kind of career plan is that? Where does one train to luge full time? The mind reels.

  • ray_g

    I’m dating myself here, but I remember when ABC (I’m pretty sure it was ABC) coined the “up close and personal” phrase. IMHO that was the start of the end of good American TV network coverage of the Olympics. I don’t want to see them up close and personal. I tuned in to see them participate in their particular sport. I am sure they are interesting and nice people, but given the number of events and the limited time available, there isn’t time for up close and personal. And have the commentators be quiet until there is something interesting and important to say. Most of the time they just gibber.

  • james

    Some commenters here don’t like or appreciate sports ( or just some types of sports), thats fine.

    The problem with NBC’s coverage isn’t the Olympics, it’s their coverage of.

    They break up the events in a nights airing, run one part of an event early in the night, then wait till the end to run the rest of it.

    It’s a sporting event programmed by entertainment producers.

    I appreciate the CBC’s coverage, where they show the event in it’s natural progression. For instance, I enjoy seeing all the downhillers in the order that they ski, let the event itself provide the drama.
    Screw the hype.-example #1 Body Miller.

  • But the rise of American Idol and that dancing show — and their increasing success — says that water-cooler-TV is as strong as ever. That’s “big event” of a different form, but definitely about big. as i posted here

  • I think its great entertainment, even if its over produced. I actually don’t mind the “spacing out” on sports that have multiple rounds in a single day. Chopping a figure skating set, however, into five parts over four hours is ridiculous, however. But they’re totally missing out on the casual viewer — one hour of American Idol is much more entertaining than one hour of the olympics (especially the first hour). Now four hours of olympics in 2:15 via DVR — great stuff.

    My thoughts: http://stafford.typepad.com/the_next_america/2006/02/the_olympics.html

  • I think Arthur nailed it: Can’t have a “BIG” event every two years. It was far better every 4 years. When the time came around, you knew it was going to a big production. Now we get “Yea. Olympic again. Joy. Here, enjoy an over the top emotional story you don’t really care about instead actually watching the event.”

    Plus, a lot of the sports that you would enjoy only every 4 years are now around all the time (X-Games, or you can follow on teh interweb).

    On what I think is a positive the over the top sponsorship seems to be way down. Sometimes, less is more.

  • I’ll be a contrarian and say that I love the Winter Olympics. It’s virtually the only TV I watch. Despite the commercialism, scandal, etc. that is mentioned above and is true, there are many more interesting stories that are out there that NBC doesn’t cover that you can find. Blending what I read on the web and then TiVO’ing through the schlock is the way I enjoy it. I, too, enjoyed the CBC coverage. Unfortunately, I don’t live in a market that has CBC anymore. Among other things, I enjoy watching (every 4 years) some obscure sports as well as getting a chance to learn a bit about other cultures/locales (not as my only source mind you).

  • There are a bunch of problems with the Olympics, many of which have already been mentioned — we already know the winners, thanks to tape delay, NBC has programmed it as an Entertainment Event, rather than as live sports, etc. The other problems are (1) too much hype, too soon. Marketers and NBC try to predict the stars and promote them before the event, so you get Jeremy Bloom, Bode Miller, Michelle Kwan, Apolo Anton Ohno, etc. Then when these “stars” fail to produce, fans get turned off. This has been going on for years – remember Dan and Dave? (2) It’s the Winter Olympics. In general, American interest in the Winter Olympics begins and ends with the ladies’ figure skating. My guess is ratings will improve substantially when Emily Hughes, Sasha Cohen and Kimmie Meissner take the ice.

  • I like a few of the sports and was willing to click over regularly, but gave up as I cannot STAND the screaming into the microphones of these unknowns who have to constantly blabber during a performance–for instance, how some skater’s Dad electrocuted himself two years ago!

    1) you need one, maybe two, people per performance.
    2) Whisper, don’t shout. STFU and let us hear the music, the snow crunching underneath the skis, the wind rushing by the luge. This is NOT the Superbowl.

    Any of you techies know how to turn off the words but leave the background sound? :)

  • I love the Olympics and think it’s the best stuff on TV, but only because of TiVo. I have two dual-tuner DirecTV recorders, so I can capture all the coverage on all the channels and then watch the best parts and skip over the rest. There’s a lot of cool stuff that doesn’t make it to prime time, and I get to see all of it, even if it was originally aired at 3:00 AM.

    There’s no doubt that the Oprah-fied coverage of all the “human interest” elements is screwed-up and antithetical to the spirit of competition, but ABC started all that with Howard Cosell on Monday Night Football and the conventional wisdom has imposed that template on all of sports in prime time now. But technology enables you to strip that crap away and get back to the essence of the competition.

    I especially like the US snowboarders, one of whom said she prepared for the games by “really chillin’, doin’ some yoga, eatin’ a lot of organic food and feelin’ good.” It’s a great country that can produce such an athlete, and a great sporting event where she can win a gold medal.

    Curling totally kicks ass, and the curling commentors are really fans and students of the game.

  • I think that if they show an event on broadcast during the day, other networks are entitled to a certain amount of ‘highlight’ footage later that evening, which would make the primetime market basically meaningless if you’ve already seen in 90 seconds the highlights of the day.

    You think watching tape delay causes fatigue…try watching 28 figure skaters back to back, of which maybe 6 have a chance at a medal.

  • I can tell you one reason why I am not watching as much of the Olympics as I used to….THE COMMERCIALS!

    As I am sitting here typing this I am watching Curling on CNBC…yes I said Curling. Out of the the last 30 minutes of taped “coverage” they have had
    9 minutes of fluff pieces, 10 minutes of commercials and 11 minutes of coverage. How can anyone watch events when there is a commercial every 4 minutes or so? This is pre-taped. They are editing the match already because they are not showing the match from beginning to the end. So I am using my TiVo and skipping thru all the commercials. I hope NBC looses ALOT more money due to their crap coverage. By the way…they are doing this kind of fluff/commercial some coverage to more then just Curling.

  • Maverick Librarian

    Have not watched the Winter Olympics, and I don’t care anytime soon. The internet, like many mention, can give me any results if I care to look them up along with news highlights. Between the commercials, the hype, the overhyped athletes who fail to deliver, and the overall bad coverage, I can think of a lot of other ways to spend my time. I usually don’t wish ill on people, but in this case, I have to agree with Andrew. I hope the network loses a lot of dough. Maybe then they may get the idea that crap coverage just is not good enough.

  • John T

    Jeff says:
    The value of the Big Event will continue to decline as the value of big declines.

    First off, I have met several of the U.S. competitors personally. They are devoted to their individual quests in ways that few of us are.

    I disagree with your conclusion that interest in the 2006 Winter Olympics is down because it is too big.

    I believe that interest is down because of the unbalanced network coverage in this country. Hockey, figure skating, ……?

    The Winter Olympics is more of a collection of smaller, as you have noted, niche events.

    Failure to cover the niches over time has led to viewer disinterest.

    I have always loved the Winter Olympics, ever since I was a child.

    Despite Bryant Gumble’s attempt to diminish the winter games for their paucity of black entrants, and lack of direct lineage to the Greek games, I respect the athetes and their events.

    I believe it is worth noting that my ancestors, who originated the nordic events, most likely reached the North American continent 500 years or so before Columbus.

    It is doubtful in my mind whether Mr. Gumble’s forebears could have accomplished the same with the materials at hand.

  • John T


  • Adam

    Mr Gumble, though completely correct in spite of your personal experiences and beliefs, doesn’t need to do anything to diminish the winter games. NBC is taking care of that.

  • Cal

    I agree with most of what’s been said, particularly about the disastrous move to alternating two years.

    However, on the “up close and personal” stuff–bitch about it all you like (and I do)–there was (and is) conviction that the suds get the women. The belief is that the ratings would be even lower if they didn’t do it.

    The Seoul Olympics of 1988 had live events on early in the morning, and I’d get up religiously to watch great swimming, diving, and track and field events. It was awesome. But the ratings were disastrous, and the Olympics broadcasts did not get decent ratings until 1996, which is when the really revolting soap opera crap began, as well as the canned events shown during prime time. Now, it may be that they confused the “home team” interest of 1996 with the success of the soap opera style, but that’s the belief. The revolting stories are not the results of entertainment producers exercising editorial control over the sports experts, but rather a management decision based on documented stats demonstrating that ratings are higher when you package sports to appeal to mainstream women viewers.

  • This is great stuff. To my mind, what is turning me off the the pre-packaged feel of the games. NBC works hard in the months leading up to the games producing the back story material that they will show. That means they have to speculate who the star athletes will be, then promote them incessantly (to the detriment of the subject) and if they fail, as Michelle Kwan did, they are left with a vacuum. Instead, why not be more agile, produce less material before the games, send a crack and versatile staff to the games, and let the stories develop themselves as they happen. New stars arise all the time, yet we hear little since NBC didn’t have something “in the can” about them. Let’s catch these stars on the rise.

    Once you get past the hype machine, the actual coverage of the events has been tremendously good. They really have great commentary teams who really know what they are talking about. Too bad.

  • Steve

    After a lengthy discourse with my wife regarding the systemic disconnect between C/PMS/NBC’s Winter Olympic coverage and the technological realities of our 90 hour TIVO, I felt compelled to weigh in on this subject.
    First, a confession: what I know regarding the intricacies of curling, skeleton, and Men’s Combined, Alpine, Nordic, Biathalon Ski and Shoot could fit inside a Tyrolian thimble. However, I do know what I like. And what I like is most definitely NOT what is being offered up by the NBC extended broadcast family. My demands are not great: in return for sitting through 36 minutes per hour of mind-numbing, grindingly offensive advertising, I want to see an event. An event that is broadcast with continuity and is linear in the sense of a beginning, middle and end. Kind of like the old days of ABC’s Wide World of Sports when Bob Beattie and Billy Kidd would preside over a nice tidy 60 minute event that included competition, mystery, “the thrill of victory” and, above all, completion. AND, it did not air at 11:30 EST.
    And enough, already, with the “up close and personal” type bio. bits on competitors who, to be blunt, have lives that are not worthy of illumination.
    By the looks of the ratings, thus far, Mr. Ebersol should be deposed given the fact that millions of other disgusted viewers have decided (like me) to vote with their remote.
    Give me a two-hour, in prime time, continuous sporting event…or give me American Idol.

  • Don

    TOO many comercials. NBC paid way too much for the rights and over sold the commercial time.

    TOO much talking by the commentators…less is more.

    If you’re going to cover an event then cover IT. not jump around.

    and BTW STFU.

    I use to love to watch the Olympics but not and I repeat NOT this time.

    I really fell sorry for the black speed skater. But worse for the woman reporter that he snubbed. It should have been her producer.

    Way too much “in your face reporting” Paperatzzi (sp? is bad – sorry).

    and STFU.

  • Nahanni

    The Olympics are a sporting event. I want to watch them that way. I want to watch an event from beginning to end, see all the competitors and the only commentary I want to hear is that which is pertinate to the event itself give by experts in that event and not some TV “personality”. If I want to know the biography of an athelete I will look that up for myself, do not take time out of covering the actual competition to tell me it.

    I can not stomach NBC’s coverage of the Olympics. It is like watching the Super Bowl being covered by “Entertainment Tonight”. Their coverage has precious little to do with the actual sporting events-it is all about “personalities” (both of the athletes and the network “talent”) to them.

    Givve me the old days where ABC would just SHOW you the actual event with minimal commentary.

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