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17th Aug, 2008

NBC’s Olympic Coverage Puts an Exclamation Point on a Recent FCC Speech

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I’ve loathed network television’s Olympic broadcasts since they blacked out the real 1980 Hockey Team victory; now NBC has something more ominous to dislike. Over the years a myth has arisen, that the 1980 game was broadcast live, but the truth is it was not. Yes, the moment the Al Michaels likes to tout as television’s greatest Olympic Triumph happened on tape–and only after tremendous public protest.

Actually at the time of the game then-Olympic network ABC was showing ice dancing preliminaries–not even the finals–sequence after sequence of competitors (I hesitate to call them athletes–but I am a radical who believes anything with judging is not a sport) doing some required routine called the killion. Over and over the same music would start up and over and over the dancers would do exactly the same thing, this being one of those preliminaries that are judged on how well everyone does the required movements. We called the local affiliate to ask if they were going to air the hockey game, or at least highlights from it and received a snotty reply that the game was projected as a Russian blow-out.

We were fortunate to find a live broadcast of the game on Canadian radio, a place where hockey is a major sport and ice dancing is something done during free skate by old folks. There was something quite extraordinary about hearing this event in real time broadcast by another country and not being able to see it. We felt a bit conspiratorial, as if we were listening to the Voice of America in the former Soviet Union or bypassing the Internet restrictions in present-day China or catching the BBC in some occupied country in World War II Europe.

The radio only heightened the feeling. Plus there was something magical about hearing this event in real time, but not being able to see it. Your imagination had to fill in the details, my mind picturing some of athletes I knew personally. In fact I had given one of them a special arrangement with my class so he could compete.

The radio also heightened the suspense as the tension built up during the game. Even with the Canadian hockey broadcaster’s expertise, since you could not see what was going on any minute you expected a Russian goal. When the game was over we called people, honked the horn, ran down anyone we could, drank a few in honor of the moment and did everything we could to spread the news. It was an extraordinary moment as word passed around town you could almost track its progress by the honking horns.

The we called the local affiliate again to demand that they show the game in its entirety during prime time, since we feared we would get only exerpts in between more of the killion. Few remember that when they did broadcast the game, there was a brief disclaimer about it being a taped broadcast. By then most of the world knew the results, but network television continued with its charade. I’ve always thought of Al Michaels as a bit of a fraud for continuing this deception and wonder why no one asked him if he had rehearsed his famous phrase between the real game and the repeat.

This August network television is back again with more of the same. We have a local high school kid who made it to the Olympics in Greco-Roman wrestling. Unfortunately he barely missed the medal round. His friends and neighbors never saw even a clip of his matches in prime time. Instead we saw Misty May doing a dance on the Great Wall, some reporter sampling panda food and way too much Bela Karolyi amd Kobe Bryant.

Many years ago at my parents’ place on the border we could pull in Canadian television with a giant antenna. Back then the Canadian Olympic coverage was different and considerably better. No “Up Close and Personal,” no panda food, no concentrating on American media favorites. We saw mnay more events since coverage was all day and heard real expert commentators who had sense enough to keep quiet except when they were teaching us about the intricacies of an event. Most of all, none of the silly second-guessing that has become so much a part of American sports coverage as if every commentator were auditioning for a coaching job (think Billy Packer).

I relate all this because this year NBC has done to Olympic coverage what ABC did to that 1980 Olympic hockey game–blacked it out. Google “Olympic blackout” and you will find plenty of entries about NBC’s delay of the opening ceremonies and other shenanigans. A Los Angeles Times piece on Olympic watching quoted  Silicon Alley “Insider” (why don’t they just tell is who he is?) Henry Blodget:

We suspect we’ll spend most of the Olympics cursing NBC for forcing us to watch the Olympics according to their schedule and style, not ours.

The Times got their digs in at NBC’s coverage:

For many, watching the Summer Olympics is itself a sport.

First, there’s the time zone difference — Beijing is 15 hours ahead of California. Then, there’s getting through the commercials and the angry muttering from one’s fellow couch potato about the America-centric, triumph-and-heartbreak commentary (which some of us love). Finally, there is bedtime to consider, with many of the best events not appearing on TV until late at night.

The biggest fraud of all so far has been the men’s 100 meter final, whose results were known by most of the world midday on Saturday. The Internet posted the results and even a still photo sequence of the event, but no video. Then it delayed showing the video until the very end of its network broadcast that night. At least so far NBC has yet to feature a story I saw on one Latin American web site about the culinary preparation of “el perro.”

As for “Up Close and Personal,” it was pioneered by Jim McKay and Roone Arledge who knew how to make it interesting, as opposed to NBC, whose idea of the “Wide World of Sports” is to cram the prime time schedule with so-called ratings guarantees such as women’s gymnastics, shots of Michael Phelps doing anything, and lots of Misty May-Treanor and Mary Walsh running around the beach in suits that leave little to the imagination. There have been more shots of women gymnasts so far than all the other sports–except swimming– combined.

If you were to judge the Olympics by network coverage you would never know Indonesia whipped China in a thrilling badminton match that had me awed at the speed and quickness of these athletes. Nor would you know the women’s double sculls finished in a dead heat or that a weightlifter was critically injured when the bar fell on in his neck as he tried to execute a snatch. You would not have known an American woman finished second in the single sculls. As for sports like judo and archery, forget even seeing them.

With this mentality, “Up Close and Personal” become more stories about athletes whose pictures stare from every magazine cover in the grocery store, coverage that is carefully placed and overseen by agents seeking to capitalize on lucrative endorsement contracts. In the world of Michael Phelps we know everything about him except the most important story of all–his extraordinary and somewhat unorthodox training regimen. To find that out you have to go to real journalists such as those in Sports Illustrated who actually take the time to learn something about the sport they are covering.

What we find is the huge investment of high tech science in Phelps (and other American Olympians) which belies network television’s favorite line which is that nations such as China “cheat” by running “sports factories” while our athletes spend their time at the local pool. Wonder about the small hole in Michael Phelps ear you might have seen during the medal ceremonies–they test his blood immediately after he swims so they can plan his post-race routine. This theme of “factories vs freedom” hit a new low when the man who runs the most militaristic training center in the country accused the Chinese of cheating by using under-age gymnasts.

Each year network television reminds us the Olympics is about such values as international togetherness, then proceeds to tell us the medal count. This year in a world that has grown tired of the kind of American hubris that lead us into Iraq and has us ignoring the Geneva Conventions, something about NBC’s coverage seems both forced and out of place, especially the gratuitous shots of George and Laura Bush, who have been on almost as much as Michael Phelps.

The gymnastics competition became framed as a contest between our pixies (an inordinate number of them blond) and the Chinese “machine,” heightened by a depersonalization of the Chinese athletes. When the Americans, who stood to make millions if they brought home gold medals, wilted under the pressure, NBC did not think to ask if maybe it played a part in ratcheting up the tensions these young women felt, especially when reporters kept sticking microphones in their faces for an amount of time parallel to the amount of the deduction.

Now, let me institute a disclaimer here. I root for our athletes just like the next person and have been privileged to know a few gold and silver medal winners. I even buy to some extent the political angle, in that the Olympics do have a connection with national character, which is why NBC worries me. Selena Roberts, a sports writer i have admired for some time, is on to something when she writes in the August 18 Sports Illustrated:

TO REMINISCE about the ole gymnastics factories with legendary coach Bela Karolyi is to look into his tank-gray eyes and see an Iron Curtain embroidered with roses.

In a misty moment at the Beijing Games he grows wistful for the rigid control he once had over pixies like Nadia Comaneci in the 1970s. “No question about it: The centralized system is the most efficient. Period,” Karolyi says.

Roberts is worried that America will embrace the “sports factory” mentality.  She ends with a warning:

It’s a tempting old tune—imagine a demanding Karolyiesque strategy for every Olympic sport—but it’s one Americans cannot play. We stood on principle as No. 2 behind a Red Machine once in the cold war. We can do it again amid a culture war.

As one whose son was a college basketball player, I have watched sports grow in this country from what used to be called a “pastime” to big business. My son, who was invited to try out for an Eastern League team and spent the past year teaching in inner city DC, gave me the lowdown on the dirty side of DC and AAU basketball where coaches, agents, shoe companies and, yes valises of money, call the tune. Having coached at various levels I can say that it is very rare that you can spot who will be a truly great player at age 10 or even 12.

The strength and the soul of the American system used to be about providing opportunities for all kids at a younger age. Like much about America, this was the ideal, which was flawed in many ways, the most notorious, of course being racism. But still it was the ideal. That has now shifted to nurturing only the kids someone–or someone’s parents–think will be a star. A Michael Jordan or Larry Bird shooting hoops in near darkness in their driveways is now a thing of the past.  Even when my son played he was told he had to choose between debate and basketball and if he wanted to play at the college level he had to play all year round.

There is a parallel between this mentality and the network’s prime time coverage. Both focus only on the stars. Both are driven solely by money. Both nurture a “factory like” system like the one Roberts fears. Here finally (you were wondering if I would ever get to it) is where a recent frightening speech by FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell adds to the fears.

Speaking to right wing bloggers at a meeting organized by the Heritage Foundation McDowell said:

This [presidential] election, if it goes one way, we could see a reimposition of the Fairness Doctrine. I think it’ll be intertwined into the net-neutrality debate … because there are a few isolated conservatives who might be cherry-picked in a net-neutrality effort, and I think the fear is that somehow, large corporations will censor their content, their points of view. I think the bigger concern for them should be if you have government dictating content policy — which, by the way, would have a big First Amendment problem — then whoever’s in charge of government is going to determine what is ‘fair’ under a so-called Fairness Doctrine.

As Broadcasting noted in its story on the speech:

McDowell joined fellow Republican commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate in voting against the commission’s Aug. 1 ruling concluding that cable giant Comcast violated its Internet open-access guidelines by blocking BitTorrent peer-to-peer traffic.

This has EVERYTHING to do with NBC’s Olympic coverage, for in the speech and his vote, McDowell is advocating just the kind of broadcasting we are seeing for the Olympics: that is, broadcasting with no alternative choices, broadcasting that extends into censoring Internet content, broadcasting that follows only one point of view, broadcasting that promotes the single-mindedness all those distopian novels we used to read warned about. We are a quarter of a century beyond 1984, but watching NBC’s coverage of the Olympics makes me wonder if we are approaching the world envisioned in the novel, for if a single corporation can control the content of what is supposed to be the world’s premier event highlighting diversity and internationalism, what is next?

The real story behind NBC’s coverage is that everybody in the world including you and I on the Net has to use NBC’s feed.  Say I managed to get some secret cell phone video of an event (BTW the Chinese at NBC’s behest are not allowing cell phones, etc. at events) and thought about airing it on this web site. NBC would come after me like I had stolen the Hope Diamond. Of course the fact that their biggest online partner is the world’s biggest monopoly–Microsoft–may have something to do with it.

There lies a cautionary tale in all this, one reinforced by an FCC Commissioners recent remarks–NBC’s coverage could be a vision of what our media and our world will become.

So when you watch the Olympics on prime tome, remember those folks with the microphones are shilling for Big Brother. Then think of having to watch the killion over and over while real news is happening that no one is telling you about.

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