Saturday, July 28, 2012

Olympian Incompetence: Even by NBC's Standards

I’ve been contemplating writing about the Olympics per se, as opposed to Mitt Romney’s inability to play nice with respect to them, since well before the games actually started. This post might or not qualify.

I’ve been thinking about why I care so much less about the Olympics now than I used to. Is it just because I’m older (I don’t follow baseball anywhere near as much as I did even a decade ago, for example)? Is it the proliferation of pseudo-sports with “judges” instead of referees/umpires/officials? Is it because “security” has trumped all else, turning host cities into police states? Is it because Games organizers are really more concerned with protecting their sponsors’ exclusivity than anything else?

Well, prior to last night, I’d have said “yes” to all four of those hypotheses, with a particular emphasis on the last item. Certainly the heavy-handed and frankly Stalinistic enforcement of sponsorship agreements with respect to the London Olympics makes the phrase “commercial whores” seem inadequate. Pick your story (sources, some of which are quoted or paraphrased below, are here, here, here, here and here):
--no Olympic food venue (and there are 800) except McDonald’s may serve chips (a.k.a. fries) unless accompanied by fish.

--all ATMs at Olympics venues will be Visa-only, meaning anyone else’s card won’t work.

--using two of the following words: “games,” “two thousand and twelve,” “2012,” or “twenty twelve” together, or combining one of those with “gold,” “silver,” “bronze,” “London,” “medals,” “sponsor,” or “summer” is prohibited in advertising (by non-sponsors) or on products/merchandise when used in a context that could suggest an association with the 2012 Olympic Games. I’m sure glad I don’t own a store called London Jewelry, trying to hold my 25th annual Summer Silver Sale.

--publicans were warned that blackboards advertising live TV coverage must not refer to beer brands or brewers without an Olympics deal.

--according to the contract the IOC blackmailed London officials into signing, spectators (spectators!) may not “wear clothes or accessories with commercial messages other than the manufacturers’ brand name”… unless, of course, the commercial message involved is a sponsor. Luckily, London officials have said they’re not going to be utterly stupid about this: I could probably get away with wearing my t-shirt from that Italian restaurant in New Hampshire. I could probably even wear a Pepsi shirt and get away with it… but if I got a few friends together to all wear Pepsi shirts, that would be conspiracy or some damned thing. And don’t think that level of stupidity doesn’t exist. Here are some examples:

--a Weymouth butcher faced a $30,000 fine if he didn’t remove an Olympics rings display comprised of sausages; a café in South London had to remove a similar display made of bagels; a florist shop in Stoke-on-Trent likewise offended with a tissue-paper construction. Apparently the locals are supposed to get excited about the Olympics, but God forbid if they have a little fun in doing so. It’s a pity the list of official sponsors doesn’t include a laxative company: their product is desperately needed by the IOC and London organizers alike.

--there are 286 enforcement officers—yes, people who have no other job responsibility than to protect the interests of their corporate overlords official Olympic sponsors.

--moreover, there are special traffic lanes in London—one of the world’s busiest cities—for use only by athletes, officials, the press, and sponsors. Londoners understand the need for athletes and officials to be at a particular place at a particular time. They’ll probably even grant a little leeway to the huge press corps. But they shouldn’t be expected to sit in traffic more snarled than ever, watching some junior executive assistant to the associate vice president for navel-gazing at Coca-Cola breeze by.
As the incomparable Ken at Popehat puts it, “there is a gulf between the field of Olympic effort and the Olympic brand—the pomp, the interlocking rings, the familiar music, the wall-to-wall coverage, the merchandise, the hype. The Olympic brand is about athleticism only in the sense that iTunes is about music: it is a vehicle for monetizing it.” I confess, I’m not a big fan of the IOC.

All that said, what I really hate about the Olympics can be summarized in three different letters: NBC.

There’s the unrelenting jingoism, the blithe assumption that American viewers couldn’t possibly be interested in a sport in which “we” are unlikely to win a medal. There are the interminable commercials—some of them well-produced, mind you—strategically placed to lure the viewer back to find out what happened when the race actually concluded. There are the announcers, who are apparently chosen with only two criteria in mind: liking the sound of their own voices, and having less of substance to offer than the scripted stupidity of Thanksgiving parade coverage.

There are the slick and soulless “personal interest stories,” which give every indication that they’re actually pre-fab slop generated by the athletes’ press agents. They’re always told in somber but ever-so-sympathetic tones against a background of soft-focus imagery and maudlin Muzak, and they yammer on about how [insert name here] overcame the trauma of breaking a fingernail at the age of seven and (and!) the death of the family dog only two years later to become the star athlete s/he is today.

There’s the unspeakable arrogance of not showing events live, and then pretending the actual competition (or ceremony, or whatever) didn’t happen hours ago. Accompanying this is the felt need to show the medal ceremonies of every American winner, and maybe two or three others over the course of the entire Olympics. If they fit.

There’s the fact that Ryan Seacrest has a job.

But last night was the topper. NBC saw fit to show us the silly Queen-jumping-out-of-the-helicopter schtik in its entirety. They dutifully cut to the stupid footage of Mr. Bean driving alongside the famous beachside run from “Chariots of Fire.” (Cute bit for about a third as long as it lasted.) They showed us the entrance of every nation’s delegation, burbling something vaguely irrelevant about each. They talked over everything, even—to be fair—providing useful context or commentary on two or three occasions: an eventuality I ascribe to the give-enough-monkeys-enough-typewriters phenomenon. (Side note: do the monkeys in question use PCs, now?)

In short, they did what they do best: 1). show ‘splosions, 2). babble, 3). think it’s about them. All this is standard fare from NBC. Their thoroughgoing incompetence at Olympic coverage has manifested itself for years. We’ve become accustomed to having the airtime dedicated to actual competition, let alone live competition, dwindle every time out to the point at which it is merely a sidebar to the real coverage, which is listening to the talking heads and PR flacks do their thing.

And yet, last night NBC managed to top themselves for arrogance, for incompetence, and for dishonesty. I’ll let them slide on the whole pretending-that-was-actually-the-Queen-paragliding-into-the-stadium thing, although NPR’s Linda Holmes gets points for her commentary: “Come now. There is playing along, and then there is clapping for Tinkerbell in the middle of a news event.” NBC even get a partial pass on their unaccountable inability to admit that they were showing events we’d already seen (or could have, if we’d chosen to): the whole “while we were away” and “this will be all over the internet within minutes” nonsense. Anyone stupid enough to think this was happening live probably deserves to be fooled. (It’s still unprofessional, of course, but listing all the ways NBC fits that description would take more time than I have—I’ve gotta catch a plane in four days, after all.)

No, this time they decided not to show us the transitional moment in mid-show, the tribute to those who died on 7/7 (England’s 9/11) and a somber recognition of all those causes—war, terrorism—which separate us rather than bring us together. Instead, we got an insipid interview by the terminally vapid Seacrest with the most over-hyped (and boring) athlete in Olympic history, Michael Phelps. And they didn’t even bother to tell us what they were up to. This is, in a word, dishonest. When They Make Me Tsar ©, whoever made that decision would be fired on the spot, and NBC would not be allowed to as much as bid on a future Olympics until Bob Costas has been dead for a decade.

There are several repercussions to this disastrous decision. In artistic terms, it defamed Danny Boyle, the director of the opening ceremonies, by making it appear that he didn’t know enough to alter the mood of the festivities. Variations in rhythm, in tempo, and in intensity are the stuff of directing—that’s why they get discussed in every Beginning Directing text on the planet. What we saw was all about loud, all about technological gimmickry, all about splash and trash. Furthermore, the edited-out sequence provided a link from the past to the future in historical terms, as well. My wife and I were talking last night about how strange it seemed that World War II and the Blitz were absent from Boyle’s historical odyssey. Ah, but they weren’t. The “war dead” motif included them, although still not as much as I would have hoped and expected. That NBC took it upon themselves to radically undermine Boyle’s overall vision without as much as acknowledging that they were showing us their version of a greatest hits show is unconscionable.

Moreover, whereas the purpose of this blog piece is not to comment on the artistic merits of individual moments, I must say I really enjoyed the missing number (screengrab above), which featured choreography by Akram Khan and a downtempo version of “Abide with Me” by Scottish singer Emeli Sandé. Here’s the link, Gentle Reader: decide for yourself. Whether the moment was “the best part of the whole ceremony,” or you believe Khan is “the most accomplished and fascinating choreographer working today,” as an English theatre friend said on my Facebook page when I posted the link, is a matter of personal opinion. It is undeniable, however, that this is a significant work by two significant artists (Sandé is no slouch, either, although less to my taste). There had better be a reason to cut something like this from the coverage of the opening ceremony. There wasn’t.

Finally, there is the undeniable insult to our English hosts. This is the country whose monarch ordered the Star-Spangled Banner played at Buckingham Palace in the wake of 9/11, the country that has been our ally in every major skirmish since the War of 1812 ended, the country that had just taken offense (rightly or wrongly) at comments by the guy who could become our next President… and when they want to mark a moment in their recent history at their Olympics, some asswipe at NBC says “no, we’re not going to show that in the US”? “Appalling” and “contemptible” are insufficient words.

Seriously: why? There is nothing controversial about the politics of the piece: commemorating the deaths of the innocent is practically de rigeur at such events. NBC cheerfully showed the part of the ceremony in which the National Health Service was recognized as one of the most significant advances in British history (complete with the shocked exclamation that “they are actually proud of it,” or words to that effect). Bob Costas went on a riff about the IOC’s refusal to include a moment of silence to remember the Israeli athletes and coaches killed at the Munich Games 40 years ago. So it’s not political… or if it is, Curmie is just too dim-witted to comprehend.

The only explanation I can find is that someone at NBC likes ‘splosions, likes loud, and thinks that we really need to see another interview involving two people for whom I’d long since lost tolerance. That was just insulting, NBC.

Finally, and most importantly, there’s the whole idea of presenting the part as if it’s the whole. NBC has come under fire before for actively disguising the tape-delayed nature of much of its Olympics coverage. And we’re long since inured to the idea that the only people we’ll see in most of the coverage of, say, diving, will meet one of three criteria: they’re American, they medaled (or nearly did), or they got hurt.

But this, somehow, is worse. Maybe it’s just that I’m a lot better artist than athlete, but I do think that it’s less problematic to show only the highlights of an athletic competition—the SportsCenter version, as it were—than to edit out pieces of an artistic work. More importantly, however, no one believes they saw the whole game in the 45-second recap. We did, I did, think the entirety of the opening ceremonies, other than the hurried-past entrance of the national delegations of countries NBC figured we don’t care about, had been presented to us. With all that stuff that obviously wasn’t live being shown to us, it never occurred to me that we weren’t seeing what was happening live. (Note: “live” in this construction means relative to the people in the stadium; none of it, of course, was live to us.)

I should know better: know better than to think a multi-billion-dollar corporation is capable of upholding professional standards, know better than to think NBC isn’t going to micro-manage their coverage to show us only what the suits want us to see, know better than to believe that any network (it isn’t just NBC, although they’re as bad as any, and they’re handy right now) has the slightest comprehension of when to act like an entertainment company and when to act like journalists.

Now I know. More than anything, I know enough to wonder what significant information NBC is choosing to withhold from us next time. And the time after that, and the time after that, and…

No comments: