Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Navigating the Olympics on Television

On the other hand, from the perspective of the rural Australian television viewer, there doesn't seem much point getting excited about the Olympic Games.  Channel 9 has the broadcast rights, but no broadcast tower out where we live - which is no podunk two-bit one-horse burg but a respectable rural center.

We manage. Because we have friends with VCRs who care.  We curl up on the sofa, turn on the TV and... become extremely confused, actually.  We saw the opening ceremony and there seemed to be an awful lot of countries represented out there, but when we sat down to watch the actual sporting events - did the athletes all come down with shin splints and go home?
The American and Australian teams must have fabulous sports physios with them - THEY'RE holding good. Same for the Canadians - I guess they're buoyed up on the strength of their national goodwill. During the women's mogul event, I believe two Japanese women managed to avoid the epidemic, but the rest of the skiers all seemed to have wandered off the hill.

The same thing happened during the last the Summer Olympics of '08.  I remember an American broadcast of the Platform Diving: we saw the Americans, the Chinese, a token Aussie, a token Spaniard- and when it came time for the medal ceremony - there were divers being given medals that we'd never actually seen compete.

The Olympics market themselves as an international goodwill festival - yes, yes, I know, cynical folks remind me that when you get down to base economics they're nothing of the sort, but the brand has stayed afloat, because, above all the petty machinations we still had the Athletes.
They were the real deal, mostly.
And the doping commissions are working on that as well.
So we hoot and holler and weep and cheer for those glorious men and women out there on the snow and the ice - or we would, but we can't find 'em.

One night we watched a European broadcast of the Men's Alpine skiing.   They showed the whole thing. Every single run. The commentators knew the course - every bend, every sweet spot.  They knew every skier - his strengths, weaknesses and historic times. I f they could've, they'd've been out there on the course to embrace every one of them at the end of each run in their sheer exuberant passion for the sport. *

Contrast that to the American footage of the moguls - a showdown: Canada vs USA!   Non-American competitors were pitched off the mountain in favor of long shots of American skiers huddled under umbrellas waiting for the weather to clear while the commentators nattered about … I genuinely can't remember a word they said.  What egg-head at the studio decided that the domestic American audience preferred empty hang time in their brief evening of Olympic highlights over a few extra runs?  Even if the athletes weren't on the home team?
All this soulful clatter about sacrifice and the depth of spirit that moveth man - We know the skiers have heart and soul and spirit beyond the bounds of normal ken. That's why they're up there at the head of the course! Move on, move along; show us that heart and soul in action on the mountain.**

And the ice skating - oh dear, the ice skating.   In a period of ninety minutes, the networks showed perhaps eight competitors - twenty four minutes of skating.  We saw the Americans, the Canadians, the Chinese, a token Aussie and the Russians.  The American channel was still fighting the good fight of the cold war; in their broadcast we saw the Russians perform but we have no idea what they were worth - the scores were cut in favor of lingering corridor shots of free world skaters limbering up in tracksuits.  When you've graciously granted the godless communists three and a half whole minutes of air-time, denying them an extra 10 seconds for a swift cut to their scores is infuriating- both to the athletes and the audience.
On an editing level, the whole thing was a mess.  They were clearly willing to cut and paste - why not cut a little further - cut those gratuitous corridor shots, the warm up periods between skating groups (in which we caught brief frustrating glimpses of the strange glittery costumes that never made it to the TV screen), the endless minutes between the routines and results of the pairs that the networks DID show in full - they could have shoehorned several more routines into their aimless production.***

Watching the sports live was something of an improvement.
Mum went up to Cyprus for the Men's moguls to watch the unedited version -
The event had all the disorganization one could expect at an event at which nine thousand people had spontaneously shown up without any warning whatsoever.  Once she had made it up the hill in the bus, she found impossible queues - and learned that no food or drink was permitted onto the mountain. (I'd have smuggled trail mix -in my bra if necessary, thank you.)  Registered refreshment vendors offered a queue 50 minutes long.  Up since dawn for her trip up the mountain, Mum waited it out - and on reaching the head of the line, she discovered that they'd Run Out.  Of everything except potato chips.  After waiting another half hour for a new shipment of snacks, she was the grateful purchaser of a soggy and overpriced hot dog.  To get back home, she faced a 90 minute wait in pouring rain to board her bus.
This show goes up every four years.  None of the organizational issues are unique.  I'd have sacked someone.

Mum said resignedly that "Well, the real money is in the TV - I understand that we don't mean as much to them." But "they" took her money, didn't they?   Don’t they owe something?  Competent recognition of basic health and comfort and pleasure in the occasion?

Frustratingly, it seems that "they" don't care about the TV viewers either.   By some lights, it would appear that both America's NBC and Australia's Channel 9 have paid heavily for the right NOT to show the Olympics.
Color me incredulous that this could be desired by the American or the Australian people - in fact I'm quite aware that it's not.  I understand that if you took an opinion poll, the Americans would have preferred ESPN - who offered Four whole channels in their bid.
Australians don’t have that option, but Channel 9 blew it just as large.  You really have to wonder what sort of calculations go through the minds of the IOC boffins when the bids come in - is a whanging great fee for a short term contract worth such a large amount of brand dilution?

2000 Sydney: I was in Boston, in university.  My roommate and I borrowed a TV and skipped classes for two weeks and watched the Olympics on public broadcast television all day long.
Fast forward to '10 - or even '08: a couple of hours of heavily redacted, time-delayed "highlights" broadcast after 8 pm.  It took a vast deal of personal effort to notice that they were happening.
I suspect that the IOC is squandering goodwill fast. When it comes down to basic economics, the Olympics don't mean nothing - no dollars and no cents, if no-one cares.  And how are we meant to care if we're not allowed to see them happen?

*On the other hand, the American commentator for the men's snowboard half-pipe was a joy all his own:
"...Here we have the first member of the Finland Mafia.  They're a bunch of guys from Finland who like to skate together - and speak Finnish, if you'll believe it."
Um, yes... yes we would.  Wonder how many half-pipes that commentator had smoked before he came out onto the mountain?
We liked him.  Yes we did.

**Burton logos forward - I can't parse the complex theological distinctions between prohibiting the Australian Kangaroo being flown in the Olympic village and the snowboarders pointedly holding the Burton logos on the bottom of their snowboards up to the TV cameras at the end of every run.

***Speaking of productions - Skating costumes are just a whole separate universe: one is forced to imagine a whole set of alternate dimensions to come up with a circumstance in which a whole committee of people thought that some of those spangles were the best of all possible options.

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