Tuesday, February 21, 2006

NBC's Olympic Crash

Like a Train Wreck, But Worse.

PSAY.5S.1. Where to begin? To gain the true measure of NBC's incompetence, one must look beyond even the worst of the 2006 Olympics itself. The American alpine skiing team may be a sorry joke -- Surprise! A "star" who boasts of competing while drunk doesn't win any medals! -- But at least one of its members came through with a gold. The old media giant that calls itself the peacock network, on the other hand, hasn't made it to the podium once, in any event.

The commentators are so indolent and ill-informed that they rarely seem present at the venue they're covering. In a couple of hours of televised skeleton sled racing, they couldn't stir themselves to explain how the sledders actually steer the devices. In countless, endless hours of curling competition, they couldn't bring themselves to lay out the rules of the game and the requirements for scoring; these can only be deduced by the superhuman masochist who manages to stay awake long enough to see how points accumulate. Despite a concerted effort to (over)sell the T.V. audience on the excellence of the U.S. women's hockey team, the game announcers couldn't be bothered to specify exactly which rules differences from the men's game are responsible for the ice-capades serenity of the action. In the ever mysterious biathlon events, the experts confined their commentary to the purely self-evident -- as the bullet struck the target or not (in closeup), they told us whether the bullet struck the target or not, but never uttered a word about the make or design features of the peculiar rifles the biathletes employ. For the person trying to watch, it's like repeatedly entering a conversation too late, after the important points have been agreed on and all that's still being bandied about are trifles. But in this case it's hard not to suspect that no important points are being made. The casual observer could be pardoned for imagining NBC's ace sports analysts snuggled up in vast overstuffed chairs before a roaring fire in some mountaintop chalet, swilling schnapps and ogling ski bunnies while casting only an occasional glance (and offhand remark) at the four-inch monitor on the coffee table where the Olympic action they're supposed to be covering is unfolding. If they don't care, why should we?

And we haven't even mentioned the only real ratings draw the Winter Olympics offers -- the gender-bending mix of costumery, soap opera, and corrupt judging that normally attracts women, etc, by the millions to the figure skating competition. Sunday night may have been a low point in the history of Olympic skating, as ice dancers transformed their intricate rumba routines into a kind of human demolition derby, complete with end-over-end crashes and wall-smacking collisions, but even that pitiful spectacle was a masterpiece of finesse compared to NBC's coverage of it. After one faintly amusing contribution from Dick Button on the first night of pairs competition -- in which he ceaselessly ridiculed every non-American, non-Russian entrant -- network bigwigs apparently took him aside and ordered him to cease reporting in any knowledgeable way on the proceedings. Since then, the various events have played out on the small screen in a sort of vacuum. Most times, the commentators are so uninvolved they don't bother to identify the music the skaters are performing to and, especially in the case of ice dancing, they refuse to describe what the performers are doing. The only step ever called out by Button's female colleague is the "twizzle," whatever that is, which whenever it occurs seems to rouse her from her lethargy so that she can pronounce the word before resuming her nap. Dick, for his part, clearly disdains any responsibility for knowing what ice dancers do; he prefers to lean back (in his overstuffed chair?) and announce at the end of the routine whether or not it held his attention.

NBC is an entertainment network, is it not? The producers should be aware that without voluminous gossipy commentary, figure skating consists of little more than a dozen or so strictly choreographed tricks that are repeated again and again by a gang of vainglorious, uneducated monomaniacs of various sexes who have spent all their waking hours since childhood on an ice rink in Delaware. (Yes, Russians included, though not so much the Chinese.) The job of the commentators at an Olympic competition is to tell their mostly female audience who is sleeping with who, why the rules of this "sport" tolerate flesh-colored thongs and nude-tone brassieres speckled with jimmies, which particular Nelson Eddy role the male skater is got up to look like, and exactly how it is that the various turns, spins, and skip-steps "interpret" the music that's playing while they do their tricks. Beyond this, the commentators also have a responsibility to the hostage male audience to explain WHAT THE HELL IT IS THE SKATERS ARE DOING ON THE ICE, which is indispensable for all the beleaguered husbands who are trying to keep their mouths shut and not spoil the experience for their wives by filling the void with their own irreverent observations.

It appears that NBC has entirely forgotten what entertainment is. Perhaps that's why the company has also mounted the most monumentally incompetent promotional scheme in television history for peddling their Olympic product to the public. As the owner of (at least) four television networks -- NBC, USA, CNBC, and MSNBC -- this giant of old media has the capacity to fill the pipe with nearly live Olympic coverage of a huge number of events. And if the NBC brass had been paying attention to the development of the internet over the past decade, they'd also be aware that it's possible to cover everything, completely live, and still earn advertising dollars for every minute of every transmission. But what have they done instead? They've decided they can exert -- in this age of infinite media and 24/7 multimedia news reporting -- monopolistic control of a global event few people can avoid hearing about, even if they're making an effort to stay uninformed. To this end, the geniuses in the NBC sports division have refused to share highlight footage with other media outlets, guaranteeing that their programming will be mocked and slighted at every opportunity by competitors while potential audience members fail to catch a glimpse of dramatic moments that might have persuaded them to tune in. Then these same geniuses postpone the climactic segment of the most popular event to the timeslot between 11:00 p.m. and 12:00 a.m., which is, for many hard working Americans, past bedtime.

No wonder Fox entertainment has been kicking NBC's ass in the ratings. Of course, I'm sure the network honchos will be happy to blame their execrable audience share on the fact that Bode Miller's mouth is bigger than his heart, female hockey is just plain dull, Johnny Weir flounces better than he skates, and that when it comes to snow, Americans excel exclusively at stoner sports like snowboarding while the only truly awe-inspiring events -- downhill racing and ski jumping -- are dominated by anonymous, personality-free blondes from Norway, Finland, Sweden, Germany, and Austria. All this may be true. But when your mission is entertainment and you've made billions convincing people to watch empty-headed sitcoms written by dirty-minded retro-vaudevillians and starred in by talentless clothes racks, you should be able to package middling content better than this.

Stay tuned for the women's figure skating. It should be killer -- another multi-car pileup on the freeway. Until then, we'll leave you with the one Olympic highlight NBC couldn't keep to itself.

U.S. Olympic hockey star
Angela Ruggiero -- shopping in Torino

I forgot to mention Bob Costas. Now I have. I promise not to do it again.

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