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Tag: 2010 Winter Olympics

random olympics: how not to broadcast a showcase event

I need only look at last night’s abomination of a broadcast from the National Broadcasting Corporation to see some of the worst possible chop-shop, dumbed-down sports broadcasting ever put on TV. This four-and-a-half hour long exercise in broadcast futility can be broken down thusly:

The showcase event of alpine skiing, the men’s downhill, featured six racers out of 64 starters. These included:

  • Two of four starters from Team USA (including Bode Miller, the bronze medal winner).
  • Two of four starters from Team Switzerland (including Didier Defago, the gold medal winner).
  • One Norwegian (Aksel Lund Svindal, the silver medal winner).
  • One Canadian (Robbie Dixon, who crashed out of the race).

During this coverage there were four commercial breaks of 2:30 per break. The six racers accounted for a grand total of 11 minutes of racing time, plus about 4 minutes of interviews.

(Congratulations, by the way, to all three medalists, who raced to the most closely contested downhill in Winter Olympic history. And welcome back to the good side of media coverage, Mr. Miller.)

The next segment was a feature on polar bears who, as far as I know, are not competing in the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. This was around 10 minutes, all told.

The following segment of speed skating had problems due to no fault of NBC, but that of broken Zambonis at the Richmond Oval.

There was about 12 minutes of coverage of snowboard cross, which featured one of the most compelling final rounds I’ve ever seen on a slope, be it skiing or snowboarding. This round was shoehorned in between rounds of…

Pairs figure skating! Yup, there was tons of figure skating on NBC last night. And that also meant way too much commentary from Dick Button, who sounds increasingly like Abe Simpson complaining about the applesauce in the Springfield Retirement Home. At least they have Scott Hamilton doing the play-by-play (he at least understands the athletic aspects of modern figure skating).

And the quality of skating, save for the top two pairs, was woeful. I mean, it was awful: crashes, slow-pace, spinning to a stop, the works. If these were truly the best the world had to offer, it’s a sad statement about modern figure skating. Seriously, it looked like Jamie Salé and David Pelltier were ready to bust out of the broadcast booth, strap on their skates and show these clowns how to actually skate with feeling and ability.

Back to my point: NBC dedicated more than half of the night’s broadcast to figure skating, showing many of the pairs in a sport that is so made-for-TV silly as to be painful. Granted, I enjoyed watching the two Chinese pairs who finished 1-2, as they looked like they actually were skating to win. So that was, what, almost 9 minutes of compelling coverage?

Otherwise, there were interview pieces (about 20-25 minutes of ’em), the worst of which featured Chris “I Can Only Really Broadcast NFL Football” Collinsworth interviewing Lindsey Jacobellis, the U.S. snowboarder whose hubris in 2006 was legendary. And Collinsworth asked her the same questions she’s been asked over the past four years, getting the same answers as every other interviewer. Why did NBC fly this clown to Vancouver?

Oh, and there was over one hour of commercial time during the 4.5 hour broadcast time. I guess that NBC Universal wants to recoup as much of the financial loss as possible.

NBC, you remain pathetic.

random olympics: nbc’s dumbed down games racket

For years, I’ve been critical of TV coverage of the Olympic Games by the United States media.

They think that the average American is stupid.

No, seriously – they do. Thee assume that, as a whole, we know nothing about sports other than baseball, football, basketball, NASCAR and hockey. They think that we’re only interested in Team USA and its athletes, or barring that, the athletes who “overcame every obstacle to get to the games.”

What’s lost in all of this? Showing the beauty of the competition as it unfolds, on its own, with the venue and the athletes as the stars.

That brings me to the National Broadcasting Company – a.k.a. NBC. They have exclusive U.S. broadcast rights for the Olympics Games, both summer and winter, through 2018. This means that any and every bit of live or same-day-delayed footage of the Games, be it TV or internet, must be distributed by them.

As such, it sucks – big time. Let’s break this down:

NBC has five networks at their disposal for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games: NBC, Universal Sports, CNBC, MSNBC and USA Network. They also have the online presence of NBCOlympics.com.

There are a large number of events at the 2010 Games, many of which run simultaneously throughout the day, so it would seem that NBC, with their large investment in the games, would flex their collective broadcast muscle to show as many events as possible in as complete and immersive a way as possible.

But they don’t – and they won’t.

Here’s how they don’t:

Say, for instance, you are like me and get all of your TV from over-the-air broadcasting (i.e. no cable, no dish). There are two NBC networks available for Olympic broadcasting: NBC and Universal Sports. And how are they using these networks?

NBC is showing sliced-and-diced coverage: coverage where events are shown in a non-contiguous manner, with rapid-fire switching between events and frequent interruptions of coverage with so-called “human interest” stories about Canada, culture, athletes with “inspiring stories,” et al. The only events with more-or-less contiguous coverage are daytime events that have lower viewership, hockey and figure skating. If you are a fan of alpine skiing (like me), bobsled, luge, ski jumping or long-track speed skating, the coverage is “custom fit” to showcase Team USA and “select favorites for the events.”

Ugh.

And it gets worse when you count in Universal Sports, a usually wonderful network that is now saddled with “talking head” shows, where commentators blather on at length about sports and athletes without showing a shred of actual competition. During prime time, Universal Sports shows reruns of pre-Olympic competition that has zero bearing on the day’s competition in Vancouver and Whistler.

In a word: pathetic.

When you add in the cable networks, it gets even more warped. The combined power of CNBC, MSNBC and USA Network are showing hours upon hours of hockey (in all fairness, they’re showing both the men and the women) and some curling (ooh – curling, the most non-athletic event at the Winter Olympic Games!). Furthermore, they seldom show Games coverage is NBC if showing something on their flagship network, and haven’t yet scheduled anything in prime time to challenge the mother ship.

And just when you thought that was absurd enough, there’s the internet factor. NBCOlympics.com is the go-to place for internet coverage of the Games in the United States. They seem to offer a gold mine of great content, including live streams of skiing, speed skating, hockey, curling, ski jumping, luge, bobsled – the works! They even offer full event recap footage, with all of the competitors shown – hot dog!

But….

If you try to access this content and are not a subscriber to a cable or satellite TV service, you are shit outta luck – “no content for you!” screams the National Broadcast Company. Sure, there’s some online video content available, but it’s all the “fluff piece” human interest interstitial bits, a montage of “hugs and tears” from the previous night’s figure skating competition, a bit on the science of the slap shot, and other things that have nothing to do with the day’s events.

If this is a direct result of the impending merger of NBC Universal and Comcast, consider me angry. Furthermore, this preferential content system is a slap in the face of net neutrality, a cause I believe in most strongly. If NBC’s argument is that people using non-cable internet providers “aren’t paying for content,” then riddle me this: I’m paying for my DSL connection, therefore I’m paying for access to content. Where’s the difference between that and cable TV?

Furthermore, if I had cable-provided internet and TV, why would I be watching events online if they were also available on TV broadcast?

I understand that NBC is a business and has a lot of money invested in broadcasting the Olympics. In fact, it’s estimated that they overpaid for the broadcast rights to the 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016 Games to the tune of over $200 million.

I also understand that their two over-the-air networks are governed by the FCC and must provide a public service. And I see their mauling of the content on NBC, combined with the complete waste of their Universal Sports network with pointless talk shows, to be a misuse of their FCC license.

So why can’t NBC simply ignore the focus groups that state that their target audience for Olympic coverage is women, age 25-64, who want to see “pretty things” on their TV? Why can’t they assume that the average viewer will understand a new sport if given the opportunity to watch it, warts and all, seeing a lot of the field and learning to spot good moves from bad? Why can’t they flex the muscle of their five TV networks and spread out the coverage, offering simultaneous and full coverage of as many events as possible?

That was the promise of NBC when they first took over broadcasting of the Olympics with the 1992 Summer Olympic Games and the “Triplecast,” a pay-per-view set of three cable channels that showed simultaneous event coverage. And in the 1980s, the previous tenders of the Olympic flame on TV – ABC and CBS – showed more coverage of more events, without breaking to-and-fro between events, teaching people about the sports as the broadcast went along.

That’s how I became hooked on alpine ski racing: watching the 1984 Winter Olympic Games from Sarajevo, where brash Bill Johnson showed up ski racing’s Austrian royalty to win the downhill, and the Mahre twins raced to gold and silver in their final international competition. It was compelling without resorting to “sob story” tactics, while showing all of the top racers and not just the cherry-picked Americans. It made me say “I want to do that!”

And I can’t see this current means of presentation of one of the most compelling competitions around being as compelling to tomorrow’s athletes. Once NBC took the reins, the slice-and-dice methods of Dick Ebersol took over, and the quality of the broadcast went down as a result.

What NBC fails to realize is that great competition is compelling in and of itself. Remember Picabo Street? She was charismatic and compelling on her own, without the help of an “After School Special” biography before each of her races. Same thing with Alberto Tomba, the macho Italian whose rise to fame in the 1988 Winter Games was unprecedented. And how about the “Battle of the Brians” – Orser and Boitano – from the same year? The sport drove the narrative, not the other way around.

So please, NBC: respect the viewer and serve us a multi-station buffet of Olympic choices, rather than spoon-feed us carefully repackaged tripe. You still have almost two weeks to make things better, and there are four years until Sochii (and two until London) for you to make amends. Please do.

Otherwise, you’re all but dead to me.

random olympics: tragedy and sport

By now most of my readers (hello, readers!) will have heard of the tragic death of Georgian luge athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili during a practice run at the Whistler Sliding Centre this morning. My thoughts are with the entire Olympic family, the teammates and coaches of Kumaritashvili, and his family and friends.

That said, I hope the IOC and VANOC don’t cancel the luge events, nor do I hope they “dumb down” the track by altering the ice density or lowering the start location. There is a race to be held, there are athletes who are ready to race and are willing to accept the risks inherent to their sport. Let them compete as a tribute to their fallen comrade.

That’s the one issue with the Olympics: unlike the year-long elite race series for these events, the Olympics allow lower-level athletes to compete on the same field as the best in the sport. While nations like the U.S.A., Canada, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Norway have a tough time winnowing down which elite athletes will represent them at the Olympic Games, other nations send athletes who aren’t usually on the World Cup or similar race circuits – and some who have never competed on a regional (let alone a world) stage. These athletes train hard, but don’t have the same abilities or experience as the elite-level competitors.

You’ve seen these folks with their “unique shot at glory” before:

  • Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards of England, the sad-sack ski jumper who could barely navigate the airport hallway, let alone launch himself off a ski jump back in 1988.
  • The Jamaican bobsled team – also in 1988 – who qualified for the games but were thoroughly outclassed by every other team on the track.
  • The nordic skiers from Kenya, who fielded their country’s first Winter Games squad in 2002.
  • One-person alpine ski and skating teams from Israel, South Africa, Greece, Lebanon and other nations not traditionally thought of as winter sports meccas.

All of these developments brought along safety concerns, some of which were addressed by the governing bodies of the individual sports (the IOC defers to a world governing body, when possible). For example, after Eddie “The Eagle” and his dangerously near-crash “jumps,” the FIS (governing body of all kinds of skiing and snowboarding) drew up minimum competency requirements to compete at the Olympic level. But not all sports thought it necessary to do so, including the bobsled and luge federations.

With the track in Whistler now seeing record luge speeds in excess of 155 kph, there’s discussion within the International Luge Federation of setting speed limits for new tracks (including the one under construction in Sochii, Russia, for the 2014 Games). And I admit that this is a prudent measure to take for future track construction.

But at this point, they should accept the track they have in Whistler: it’s one for the elites of the sport. If a team determines that the venue isn’t safe for its competitors, said team should pull its competitors but not declare the track “unfair.” The competition is a test, and not all will pass (morbid as that sounds).

Elite athletes in events such as luge, skeleton, bobsled, alpine skiing, snowboarding, skicross, ski jumping and speed skating all accept that there is risk involved in their chosen sports. Injury and, sometimes, death are part of the equation, and these athletes live their lives on the edge every time they mount their sleds, pole out of the starting gate or fly off the carved precipice of snow and ice. They train for years, often for most of their waking hours, to minimize the chances of getting hurt while also learning to push the limits of their bodies and equipment.

Spotlight events, such as the Winter Olympic Games or World Championships, bring the adrenaline and danger of these sports into the living rooms of hundreds of millions of people every few years, many of whom are only casually familiar with the events they watch. So the shock factor of things going wrong is perhaps higher than it is for the die-hard fans of these sports, and with the media’s ever-critical eye focused on these showcases of sport, the questions are always raised: are things too dangerous? Is it necessary to even hold these events, given the risk?

I say it is. These are elite athletes, even if the “elite” status is only within their home nation’s borders. And they are at the Winter Olympic Games to compete against the best in the world.

So let the games go on. Let the luge races happen. Do it for the memory of Nodar Kumaritashvili.

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