“Lists are a form of cultural hysteria.” —Don DeLillo
Five reasons why watching the Olympics in America is so irritating
1. NBC treating the Olympics as lifestyle programming and not sport
If you suffered through NBC’s primetime coverage you could be forgiven for being confused as to whether the Olympics is a sporting event and not this summer’s new reality show format – I imagine the pitch was “think Splash mixed with The Amazing Race”.
Not that this sidelining of the actual sports and all their varying technicalities for a simperingly simple human interest angle is an accident on the part of NBC. Indeed, when they want to NBC can do sports well. Their acquisition of the US TV rights to the Premiership has for the most part been exemplary, and as any soccer fan in the US who had to suffer through Warren Barton and Piers Morgan on Fox Soccer Channel can attest to, it really has been a drastic upgrade on the coverage provided by the previous rights holder. NBC’s primetime Olympics show is a deliberate move on their part to make the world’s biggest sporting event as palatable as possible to a non-sport-watching audience. As one NBC executive put it to The Telegraph, “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.”
2. NBC’s on-air personalities
If further proof were required to demonstrate that NBC thinks of the Olympic’s foremost as light entertainment fare for a, let’s be honest, middle-aged, middle American female demographic, look at which of its on-air personalities it sent down to Rio to cover the games – it was basically the Today Show on vacation. The Opening Ceremony coverage consisted of Hoda struggling in the commentary box after one too many Caipirinhas, Meredith Vieira making the most inane comments, but saying them in such a way as to momentarily trick you into thinking that there might be the flickering of intelligence behind them (note: there isn’t), and then, last, but not least, there was Matt Lauer just being the most Matt Lauer-y he could be, thus giving Americans all across the nation the opportunity to simultaneously renew their love of the Olympics and their hatred of Matt Lauer.
Even poor Bob Costas – whose pink eye was the highlight of the Sochi games and who is a genuinely good sports broadcaster – had to spend every evening doing light, fluffy interviews with the athletes. People missing softball at the Olympics could get their fill with the questions Costas was forced to lob to competitors
And if all that wasn’t enough, the network gifted us not just Ryan Seacrest, but they threw in a Billy Bush in there, too. For the benefit of UK readers, this is like the BBC deciding what their Olympic coverage really needs is the addition of Dermot O’Leary and Rylan.
Although I am grateful for the NBC coverage that I, at least, finally discovered that Billy Bush is, in fact, the nephew of George H. W. and the cousin of George W. I have no idea how this titbit of information previously passed me by, but my life seemed poorer not knowing it. To be honest, this changes everything. All these years I’d thought the Bush family’s greatest crime against humanity was the geopolitical mess George W. left and it turns out the greater crime was actually Billy’s anodyne hosting of Access Hollywood. This really is like discovering Lionel Blair was Tony Blair’s uncle all along. I can only hope that funk-a-licious George Clinton was also Bill’s cousin.
3. Narrow focus on select sports
The Olympics is a sporting smorgasboard, yet it offers a selection so broad that one can’t be expected to eat it all without suffering acute indigestion. As such, broadcasters will naturally focus on a number sports that they know their audience will watch because either the sport is popular in that country or the country has a strong chance of medaling. For example, Danish television is going to cover Handball far more than New Zealand television who will likewise cover the Rugby Sevens more than Danish television will. The US is obsessed, in particular, with swimming and gymnastics. If all you had was the primetime coverage to go on, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Olympics only consisted of swimming, gymnastics and the occasional game of beach volleyball. On the one hand, that is fair enough. An American broadcaster should broadcast those sports that are popular with the largest number of Americans, but it is a shame when there’s so much sporting variety on offer that the primetime coverage is relatively myopic. It’s a bit like going to an amazing sushi restaurant that has exotic, incredible sushi – sea urchin, fugu, things you’ve never heard of but are intrigued by – and your dining partner insists you just get a Philadelphia roll.
NBC could have done us all a favor and simply renamed their coverage America’s Got Talent. While one of the joys of the Olympics is cheering on your own country, you could have been forgiven for thinking the games only consisted of Americans winning gold medals.
Repeatedly you only saw the American competitors. Non-American athletes with the obvious exception of Usain Bolt were rarely spoken about, even to give context to the challenge faced by an American athlete. And seeing a medal ceremony that didn’t feature the star-spangled banner and a triumphant, gold medal-wearing American was a rare sight indeed.
5. How NBC tabulates its medal table
Like insisting on using Fahrenheit or ordering dates month, day, year and not day, month, year like the rest of the world, the US uses its own Olympic medal table. Instead of arranging by gold medals won and then silver medal should gold medals be a tie, it just go with the total number of medals.
If, say, Germany won 9 golds and one silver, but France won just 11 bronzes, the US Olympic medal table would have France as doing better in the Olympics than Germany as they have won one more medal. Nonsensically it gives equal weight to a third place finish as actually winning the event.
Normally, I’m merely irritated by this, but this Olympics I was far more exasperated by the US table as it – shock, horror – put Great Britain in third rather than their actual, astonishing placing of second just above China. I assume it’ll take China beating the US by their own silly table formulation to get NBC to use the IOC’s table like the rest of the world.