We take a break from reviewing (nearly) every sport in the Olympics to point out the obvious: NBC's coverage is terrible.
I've given NBC a bit of a pass because it is hard to cover the Olympics. There are 30 or so different sports going on, and the American sport audience has been trained to like specific sports like football and baseball, but to not care about "sport" in general. The days of ABC's Wild World of Sports are long since passed.
Also, most of the Olympic TV audience are the most casual of fans. Heck, a lot of them aren't even sports fans, just fans of "event" television. There's nothing wrong in admitting a large portion of the TV audience only tunes in because it is the Olympics, and will go back to not caring about gymnastics or track for the next four years. NBC has to find a way to service both hard core sports fans like me and casual Olympic viewers like my mom.
NBC's taken a lot of crap for tape delaying its coverage to prime time, but I think this anger is entirely misplaced. Most of us work and we're not going to skip work to watch the Olympics. It's not only appropriate, but it is a downright good idea to put together a four hour show to air during prime time, airing all of the biggest events. There's something to be said for good communal television that we can all share as one big nation.
The problem is not that NBC tape delays events. The problem is that they pretend these events are live and additionally, their coverage is terrible. I'm okay with a manipulative canned profile to get me to care about some athlete I've never heard of before, but I do ask that the manipulative canned profile be well done. The problem is not that they have these athlete sob stories, but that the segments are terrible, and don't get me to care that much. I thought it was just me being cynical, but it turns out my mom, pretty much the definition of the casual Olympic watcher, also thinks they suck. So, NBC's managed to alienate both the casual viewer and the hard core fan.
Even that's not a crippling blow. What truly makes NBC's coverage so awful is their coverage of the events themselves. First, there's no reason why they can't show the event live for the hard core fan and then show it again in prime time for the casual viewer. That way we don't pretend these events are live, but NBC can still have some suspense for the viewers who only want to tune in for the big show at night. It's such an obvious compromise that I can't believe NBC hasn't thought of it.
Sure, they give us the events live online, and I've greatly enjoyed the internet feed. It's allowed me to watch rowing, fencing, trampoline, and all of those other minor events. Heck, it allows me to watch pretty much every team handball match (and seriously, why aren't you watching this?).
Know what feeds don't work? Track and swimming. Yes, the events that NBC is most likely to embargo are also the feeds most likely to freeze up, black out, or simply don't work. Strangely enough, several million sport fans all logging on to see the same race at one time might cause your servers to slow down a bit. Watching a swimming event online is like watching it by slide show, the feed is so choppy. It's a good idea poorly executed.
However, the one thing the online feeds do demonstrate is how little of the sport we get to see in prime time, and never is this more apparent than with gymnastics. NBC shows a lot of gymnastics in prime time, and their jingoistic coverage actually makes me hate the American team and root for the Russians just out of pure spite. I don't think I could hate an announcing team more than I hate the NBC gymnastics team.
The strange thing is, despite reserving a good two hours of prime time for gymnastics during the team event and the all-around, you didn't really see the event. I mean, you saw the Americans, and a little bit of the Russians, but that's about it. NBC devotes a huge amount of time to gymnastics, as they should for one of the most popular events, and then proceeds to not show the event.
The online gymnastics feed has been absolutely terrific. First off, no announcers. I can't stress enough how much I hate NBC's team. They not only fail to help explain the sport, they just exist to cheer. And actually, I wish more announcers were open about their biases and would cheer for the home team, but you can do so in a manner that both illuminates the action and gets me excited for the home team. NBC's crew does neither. They create a narrative that it is the US's gold medal and other teams are out to steal it. Which is simply not true, and a disservice not only to the other teams, but the American team as well.
NBC's laser-like focus on just the US team also robs the event of its inherent drama. Watching the online feed, you get a sense for the competition itself. Each nation is competing on a different apparatus and watching the scoreboard as well. It's chaotic and incredibly tense. One moment the Romanians are throwing up an awesome performance on the bars, and then the Russians are falling apart on the floor, followed by the US dominating the vault. It's all happening at once, and you start to see how each performance affects the next, by building tension or momentum. Watching the NBC coverage, you missed out on the slow motion self-destruction of the Russian team, which was oddly compelling. You also missed out on the British team putting up some awesome routines, buoyed by the home crowd.
It turns out, I really like gymnastics. It's just an amazing sport with great athletes and palpable tension, tension which is actively gutted by the NBC production. They make it seem like a stage show, and it becomes about little china dolls looking pretty. It's offensive to me as a viewer, but nearly as offensive as it must be to the athletes themselves. Heck, NBC often forgets to show us the scores, which is sort of the point.
If you think you've seen gymnastics at this Olympics, and you've only been watching the TV coverage, you are wrong. You haven't seen it at all. You have just seen a commercial for the US team.* The team, and we viewers, deserve better.
*NBC did actually show a good portion of the vault, but focused on perhaps our least likeable gymnast, McKayla Maroney. NBC did her no favors by building her up like Ivan Drago, but she lived up to her villain billing. I don't expect her to be happy about landing on her butt, but let's be honest, she landed on her butt and still won the silver. That's a pretty generous result, and for her to pout on the medal stand and generally fail to show any grace towards the Romanian, who came through with two big vaults, just made me glad she lost. Gabby Douglas, she ain't. Jordyn Wieber even won points for being generally gracious in defeat. She stood in stark contrast to her teammate.
Swimming and Track Update
Usain Bolt is awesome. In other instance of why NBC sucks, the network delayed a tape delayed race to outside of pirme time. The 100 meters went off at 11:15 EDT, when most kids on the east coast are safely tucked into bed. I mean, it's not like kids might want to see the marquee event of the Olympics. NBC didn't have to lead off with the biggest event, but they waited until a good portion of their audience was already asleep. It was like the network flipping off every person in the country.
In case you were asleep, the race was beyond awesome. It may have been the greatest 100 meter race ever run. Tyson Gay finished the race with a time that would have won the gold medal at any other Olympics, save 2008. He finished fourth.
Too bad a lot of you didn't see it. Who would want to air that during prime time?
Next Up: Wrestling, I swear.