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Jul 31 2012

Why I don’t watch the Olympics on TV

I first watched the Olympics on TV in 1976, when I was in the US as a graduate student, and quickly became fed up. The inane chatter of the anchors and commentators, the frequent long breaks for commercials, and the excessive focus on only showing events in which Americans had hopes of winning medals, were all annoying.

Since this was pre-internet, the TV network had control over when news would get released and they would use that power to the maximum, with misleading hyping of marquee events. The anchors would say things like “Coming up! The 100 m finals” when in reality it had been over hours earlier and they knew they would not show it for another hour or so and would fill the time with commercials, chatting by the anchors, dreary interviews, biographical clips of athletes, and, if you were lucky, some other events. I used to play a game in which I would try to predict from the words and tone of the anchor, who already knew the result, whether the American had won the upcoming event or not.

The jingoism was also relentless. Recall that in those days we had the added bonus of the Cold War and hence any event that directly pitted US athletes against those from the Soviet Union or the Soviet bloc was treated with all the solemnity of the Cuban missile crisis. Any close decision that went against the US and in favor of a Soviet bloc country was accompanied by suspicions, if not outright accusations, of cheating by the athletes or judges from that country.

Since the TV networks pay for the coverage, they have the right to do with it what they wish. My only option is not to watch and since 1976 I have never watched more than a few minutes here and there, usually when I walk into a room and someone else is watching. With the internet, I have even less reason to watch on TV. Since I do not particularly value watching things live, I actually save a ton of time by reading about interesting things that happened and later watching just those on the web.

It looks like nothing has changed and that we are back with our favorite quadrennial event of complaining about NBC’s TV coverage. Going by the criticisms, they seem to have actually got worse. Apparently this time around they have upped the number of athlete biographical stories, emphasizing those involving overcoming personal adversities, and this has led to parodies like this one.

15 comments

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  1. 1
    Matt Penfold

    The BBC is doing things rather better. Those of us in the UK can access every event live online or via satellite TV. The commentators also seem to have a clue that there are competitors who are not British who might quite good.

  2. 2
    eric

    Agree with what you say about the TV coverage, though I admit I’m liking the streaming avaiable via NBC’s web site. A 15-second commercial every 5-10 minutes or so, but otherwise its fairly unedited (no commentator voice-over), and I can see sports they have basically never shown on American TV due to lack of popular interest. Frankly, I hope “stream everything” becomes the standard for future Olympic coverage.

    The interface is clunky, sometimes the streaming jumps, and sometimes the camera angles they use don’t perfectly capture the action. But its still orders of magnitude better than typical American constant-inane-patter-over-everything sports coverage.

  3. 3
    Matt

    Agreed – the streaming on NBCOlympics.com is great. I just watched archery, Judo, and fencing live. No commentators, very few advertisements, etc.

    Of course, the only problem is that you have to prove that you subscribe to a cable or satellite TV package that gets all of the NBC channels so that NBC knows you are only supplementing your viewing experience, not replacing it at their expense. I guess it’s baby steps.

  4. 4
    left0ver1under

    It’s the same story, over and over again. Every winter and summer games, Americans are scrambling to try and get CBC or BBC coverage because it’s live and unedited. NBC must think the majority of Americans are stupid and unwilling to watch at six in the morning. During the winter games in Turin, Canadians were watching hockey games live at 2AM. What’s really amazing is NBC’s response in the past to the complaints, to suggest the viewers don’t know what’s best for them.

    Myself, I don’t watch the olympics at all, but not because of the lousy coverage. It’s over-commercialized, and I have no faith that any of it is clean. For example, the 100 metres world record now is a quarter second faster than Ben Johnson’s drug-assisted record in 1988.

    Winning doesn’t sell tickets and ad space, world records do. And the only way to keep setting records is improved performance through chemistry. Olympic drug testing is a farce, especially when the olympic committees of some/many countries cover up positive tests.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2003/04/17/sports/olympics-anti-doping-official-says-us-covered-up.html

    The only things I’m paying attention to are:

    (1) To see the US lose in basketball, celebrating the anniversary of losing 40 years ago. Wouldn’t it be hilarious to see Russia or Lithuania win, upsetting the overpriced pros?

    (2) To see how many positive tests there are, especially of high-profile people.

    (3) To see if Great Britain can join Canada as the only olympic host country not to win a gold medal. Canada did it twice (1976 and 1988), and the UK seems well on its way to joining the club.

  5. 5
    Marcus Ranum

    The olympics are a disgusting feast of nationalism. If it were only about the individual athletes, regardless of what imaginary lines on a map they happened to be born between, then it might be worthwhile.

    I have always failed to see why one country is greater because one member of their population fell at the top of the bell curve for some particular sport.

  6. 6
    Sunny

    Funny: http://tinyurl.com/dx5uux3

    NBC’s Missy Franklin Screw-up Reveals the Absurdity of Tape Delay

  7. 7
    'Tis Himself

    To see if Great Britain can join Canada as the only olympic host country not to win a gold medal.

    GB’s Percy & Simpson are second in Stars (that’s a sailboat racing class for you landlubbers) just 1 point behind Scheidt and Prada of Brazil with five more races to go.

    I don’t follow any other Olympic sports.

  8. 8
    Mano Singham

    See, that’s another reason I don’t watch the TV Olympics, because I like to learn about what goes into a good performance in sailing or fencing or judo or some other sport that I know almost nothing about. I like the technical stuff but that is the one thing I never get.

  9. 9
    AsqJames

    I have always failed to see why one country is greater because one member of their population fell at the top of the bell curve for some particular sport.

    I agree the nationalist/jingoist overtones can be a little off putting, however I think it would be interesting if Olympic competitors were drafted at random kind of like selection for jury duty. There are several advantages:

    1. We’d save a ton of money on out of competition drug testing ‘cos nobody knows whether they’ll be picked ahead of time.

    2. Incentivises governments to invest in the general health and fitness of their population which would bring all kinds of tangential benefits.

    3. There’d probably be some *really* interesting back stories to tell and the ineptness of some of the “athletes” would be entertaining – don’t laugh too hard though, it could be you tripping over every hurdle next time!

  10. 10
    mildlymagnificent

    I find the Australian coverage really irritating for similar reasons. The guarantee of exclusive coverage should mean that they’re free to show whatever they like whenever they like.

    What do we get? The same few minutes of a few events/races shown over and over and over again. ‘Embellished’ by never-ending repeats of the same few 90 second interviews of very few competitors.

    OK. I am interested in the few people I know something about in events I know (very) little about. But I’d also quite happily watch badminton, fencing, handball, water polo and table tennis and other less familiar sports even though there are no Australians competing in the item shown.

    There’s something fascinating about people excelling in activities you’d never dream of attempting yourself. Even if you’re not even sure of the rules of the competition. Outstanding performances are worth something – and the networks have us held hostage by their ironclad contracts. They might as well give us a window into an unfamiliar world.

  11. 11
    Dunc

    Yeah, it’s been a real boon for “minority” sports. I watched most of the Men’s Individual Foil last night – now there’s something you never normally see televised. And the commentators actually knew what they were talking about.

    Plus, since it’s the Beeb, no adverts!

  12. 12
    eric

    That sounds suspiciously like you want commentary! Heh, okay, I think there is a middle ground; on-topic, occasional commentary for an event can add to the experience. Its mostly just the U.S. version which ruins sports.* Every second must be filled with talk, and if nothing is relevant to the moment, talk irrelevancies. Its like they get paid per word.

    One of the 1st day fencing streams explained the rules, the difference in weapons, etc… I imagine other sports had the same thing; some sort of ‘trailer’ video explaining them, to go with the initial coverage. But I’d be hard-pressed to find that video even knowing it exists – casual viewers are probably SOL.

    Well, this is the first time so hopefully everything will improve in future years.

    *Only mostly – European football coverage seems to work the same way.

  13. 13
    Roger M

    Dear Mano Singham
    Bulls eye.
    You describe USTV in general, and not only coverage of the Olympics.
    That’s why I don’t watch TV at all.
    Maybe it’s because I didn’t grow up with it?

  14. 14
    Mano Singham

    Actually, I really appreciate informed commentary, especially when I am watching sports that I know next to nothing about. I get irritated when the commentators seem to be just filling time, as you point out.

  15. 15
    Tim

    Nope. I grew up with American TV. Never watch it anymore. My kids have survived into their teenage years without us having a television in the house.

    The Olympics especially drive me crazy – for all the reasons Mano and others have pointed out.

    Not watching the Olympics is clearly a minority process in the US. I once made the mistake of admitting at a work meeting that I didn’t watch the Olympics. Based on people’s reactions, for a moment I wondered if others in the meeting had somehow heard me admit to killing a busload of puppies. Or something equally egregious.

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