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Monday, July 12, 2004

I Don't Hate NBC's Olympics Coverage, Yet
This was one of those weekends that is more necessary than pleasurable. Last week I put in my usual 50-55 hours of work, which would’ve been fine, except that it was a four-day week. Other than a little bit of socializing (a dinner guest for us Friday night, a trip to lunch at the new pad of a friend of R’s Saturday) and some very gentle shopping Saturday and Sunday, the weekend was little more than a battle against enervation and a persistent sinus headache.

Well, that’s not quite true. I did put together my CD for Summer Burn 2004—I couldn’t resist doing a themed disc; they’ve always been my weakness, but if summer and travel don’t go together, I don’t know what does.

I wasn’t even in the mood for watching television, except, of course, for the Olympics trials, the television coverage of which was shockingly decent, considering that we were dealing with NBC. I’m a total Olympics geek, and in years past I’ve been driven to absolute distraction by U.S. TV coverage of the Games, with as much time devoted to sad stories as to the actual events. This is just the trials, not the real thing, so I’m not going to get ahead of myself and say they’ve come to their senses and started to focus on the actual sports—right now only sports fans are watching, so they don’t need to waste time on silly stories—but it was, nevertheless, a pleasant surprise not to be baying for Bob Costas’ blood (though I still don’t like him one bit).

Things were definitely at their best on Friday night when we had three hours of coverage—an hour of swimming from Long Beach and two hours of track and field from Sacramento. It was reassuring to see that U.S. sportscasters are capable of doing acceptable (if not remarkable) coverage when given the opportunity. When Costas mentioned that multi-medalist Jenny Thompson had lost her mother to cancer in February, I was shocked that we’d gotten 45 minutes into the swimming telecast before the first mention of cancer. (The C bomb was dropped for the first time in the track coverage around the 38-minute mark, when we learned that Inger Miller’s dad, a two-time Olympic medalist for Jamaica, is “battling” lung cancer.)

There’s still way too little of the actual competition in the athletics side of thing—five-second clips are more frustrating than entertaining sometimes. Weirdly, I prefer the approach NBC has taken with swimming—either showing it all or showing none of it. It was pretty random in places—it wasn’t clear, for example, why they’d decided to show us pretty extensive coverage of one heat of the women’s 5,000 meters Friday night, when they’d short-changed many other events, including the first heat of the same race, of which we saw nothing (especially weird since Marla Runyan won that one, and she’s famously never been beaten by an American in the 5k).

There was a pretty long segment on the BALCO scandal that’s such a big deal on the sprinting side of things. It was a pretty superficial overview, but it covered enough to make it clear that the story is complicated, and perhaps that’s service enough.

It did feel like a warm-up for the TV folks. While they kept stressing (appropriately and pretty effectively) how cut-throat the competition was on the track and in the pool—how many of the competitors who would be eliminated would be good enough to medal if they were from another country—the TV production was pretty amateurish in places. (Though I prefer that to the over-produced style they’ll no doubt have adopted by the time they get to Athens.) Since the coverage was not live, it was sometimes hard to figure out why they were focusing on the people they were—in the heptathlon, for example, they had the camera on the woman who was in seventh place for most of the time, and they didn’t explain their reasoning. (They may have known that her best events were still to come or that the folks ahead of her had already had their strongest events—but they didn’t share that with us.)

Some of the scripting seemed ropy too. Carol Lewis started Saturday’s Sacramento coverage with, “As cold as it was yesterday is as hot as it is today,” which is pretty inscrutable—especially if you missed the previous day’s coverage. On Sunday, Lewis said of Sandra Glover (who didn’t make the cut), “She’s been having a hard time this year because her event is not Golden League and [she] has been having trouble finding races to run fast in.” Since there’s next to no coverage of track and field—and no coverage whatsoever of Golden League events as far as I know—on U.S. television, there must surely have been a lot of viewers who didn’t know what Lewis was talking about. Dwight Stones also has a really annoying tic of referring to people as “a former Howard graduate,” etc. Surely, they’re either former students or current grads, but not former grads?

At one point on Sunday’s track coverage (I missed Sunday’s swimming coverage), they went to Dwight Stones for a report on the women’s triple jump and his microphone was dead. This made no sense to me, since the coverage clearly wasn’t live, but I’m guessing that they’re “shaping the narrative” of the film coverage but taping the commentary live. They also need to be quicker at putting the results on the screen. After the amazing men’s 100-meter final, Lewis (or perhaps it was Tom Hammond) declared, “Oh, my goodness, look at the time!” but at least another minute passed before we were shown that crucial information. (We didn’t only need it to see the times—Justin Gatlin and Shawn Crawford are not exactly household names. I for one needed an answer to the basic question of “who qualified?”)

The best part is that there are seven more days of track and field and several more days of swimming still to come. No doubt by the end of the week, I’ll be an NBC hata once again, but for now …