February 23, 2014

NG | NBC’s Olympic Problem

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By KAI SAM NG

The Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics are over, and soon the event will slowly fade from our collective memory with varying consequences. The good: That stupid photo of the two toilets in a double stall will finally stop getting reposted. The bad: LGBT persecution in Sochi will get less coverage as reporters slowly fly out of the city. But what will not change is the way the United States covers the Olympics, which NBC will continue to do exclusively –– and poorly –– until 2020. This is unfortunate.

Commentators have already picked apart Bode Miller’s post-game interview with NBC correspondent Christin Cooper last week. After Miller won a bronze medal in the men’s super-G competition, Cooper pestered Miller with incessant questions about his dead brother until he walked away in tears. That’s when the interview should have ended. Instead, NBC cut to another camera to keep the focus on Miller. Crouched behind a fence a short distance away, he clearly wanted to be left alone. Instead, NBC sprinkled a simpering voice-over on top of footage of Miller crying. “The emotion that he’s been carrying continues to flow out. … What a journey it’s been!” exclaimed Dan Hicks, an NBC commentator. Individually, these blunders render NBC’s coverage annoying, not unfortunate. But together, they make it clear that NBC cynically views the Olympics as entertainment events –– not as the news events they actually are.

We should not forget that NBC has had worse missteps, like when the network edited out a memorial for victims of the London bombings from its coverage of the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics. But in the case of the Bode Miller interview, we have on our hands something that actually made it through NBC’s editing process –– something that most people in the U.S. have uncomfortably watched.

Asking Miller about his brother’s death and his custody battle are not off-limits; these topics are, after all, valid news stories surrounding the Olympic medalist. But NBC was financially invested in digging for a human interest story: It flaunted a sappy montage of Miller’s life as a changed man, a man who overcame great tragedy in his life. It is this kind of angle that compels questions like, “When you’re looking up at the sky at the start [of the race], and it just looks like you’re talking to somebody, what’s going on there?” Questions like this would drive Miller, or any athlete with a recently deceased family for that matter, to tears.

The Miller interview is but a blip in a long legacy of NBC missteps: The network has been consistently criticized for tape delays, ill-advised intermissions, extensive edits and a lack of live streaming on the Internet –– unless you have a cable subscription, of course. Also, when comparing NBC’s coverage to that of other countries –– especially BBC’s coverage with no cuts and extensive live streaming –– it is limp and half-hearted.

Individually, these blunders render NBC’s coverage annoying, not unfortunate. But together, they make it clear that NBC cynically views the Olympics as entertainment events –– not as the news events they actually are. This is why NBC prolonged footage of Miller crying, rather than edit it out. This is why, in an Olympics where Russian LGBT discrimination is a core issue, NBC edited out an anti-discrimination statement from this year’s opening ceremony. This is why NBC justified editing out the tribute to London bombing victims in the 2012 opening ceremony: NBC’s “programming is tailored for the U.S. audience.” This is what makes NBC’s coverage unfortunate. Every misstep arises from smarm.

NBC has consistently attempted to defend itself by referencing the audience it purportedly serves. Mark Lazarus, the chairman of NBC Sports Group, justified tape-delaying and editing all opening ceremonies by saying, “historical and cultural context and relevance make [a tape-delayed production] a more enjoyable and informative experience.” This is a terribly weak defense. It’s unclear what the network means by “context.” But if “context” means seeking to provide meaningful commentary, then the network has a terrible track record. This is further evidenced by Meredith Vieira and Matt Lauer’s introducing Madagascar as “associated with a few animated movies” and Australia as a “former penal colony.”

According to NBC, viewers need someone to hold their hand. To NBC, viewers care more about catching bad, failed sitcoms like Animal Practice than watching the closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. Apparently, viewers care more about human interest stories than sport. But it’s clear from the criticisms barraging NBC that viewers can see through that cynical attitude. Viewers, on the contrary, demand and deserve something better. Changing that attitude is key to avoiding another coverage mishap. Otherwise, NBC may have many more apologies to release until 2020 rolls around.

Kai Sam Ng is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at kng@cornellsun.com. Cross-Eyed and Painful appears alternate Mondays this semester.