Why Olympics Coverage Matters

When the Rio Olympics Opening Ceremony took place last Friday, I was one of those in the U.S. who took to Twitter to voice my dismay over NBC’s coverage. Usually, I try not to get swept up in this kind of tempest in a teapot, but because I work in intercultural and international relations, and this was a major moment for countries to come together, I felt that this was an issue that mattered.

Tape Delays

In the first place, I found it irritating that I had to wait for three extra hours to see a sports event of global significance just because I live in Arizona. (Arizona does not do daylight saving time, so we are three hours behind the East Coast in the summer). There is some logic to the idea that the program should air at a time that is equally convenient for people in all parts of the country (if it aired at 7 in New York, then it must air at 7 everywhere!) However, this reveals ignorance about the peculiarities of regional markets: Arizonans are on a much earlier schedule as most of us are at work by 6:30 – 7:30 AM, and would have rather watched the program earlier in the evening instead of staying up until midnight. Moreover, given that the Olympics are taking place in our hemisphere, it’s not nearly as difficult to watch live as if they were taking place in, say, Australia. Finally, this kind of tape delay is simply not something that would be acceptable if we were watching an event of national significance like the Super Bowl or the NBA finals.

Back to the Future

Related to the tape delay was an apparent lack of recognition that we are living in the era of global social media – even though this is at least the third Summer Olympics where this has been a reality. This means that unless I cut myself off completely for two weeks straight – something that is not possible given that I’m online for much of my work – I will inevitably see tweets and posts about Olympic news. During the Opening Ceremony the spoiler was the shiny man from Tonga, but as we progress to athletic events, it feels less fun to know which swimmers won the gold medal three hours before I can see the race.

In fairness to NBC, they supposedly have an app and online streaming option, but it’s only available to customers of their parent cable company, Cox. This is annoying, because NBC is otherwise free – all that is required is a TV and some rabbit ears (antennas). As an older Millennial who has not had cable service during my adult life, and who lives in an online streaming universe comprised of Netflix, Amazon Prime & HBO, I am used to flexibility, individual customization, and above all, the ability to stay up to the minute with things happening around the world. By contrast, my reintroduction to NBC/Cox gave me the distinct impression that we had gone back in time to 1996. Worse, it creates a divide between haves and have-less: those who can afford it get to witness our country and the world in real time, everyone else has to wait. Thus, while the Olympics should be an opportunity for the network to cultivate new customers and bring the country together, NBC created more barriers and reminded me why I don’t tune in outside this event.

Out of Touch

This “out-of-touch-ness” was even more of a problem when it came to the hosts and content in the Opening Ceremony. Let’s take a look at the hosts: Matt Lauer, Meredith Vieira, and Hoda Kotb are all white baby boomers. There is nothing wrong with being in this group – my parents are white Americans in their fifties and sixties and I love them very much. What troubled me was the fact that when our country in general and American sports in particular are so richly diverse, the hosts of the Olympic Opening Ceremony are not. (Although I do give them some credit for having two women – it’s a start). I understand that NBC had to trot out its favorite faces from its morning shows, but given that this is an athletic event and not a holiday parade, it felt like an odd mismatch to me.

More than being visually out of place, however, the lack of diversity contributed to insipid coverage that one person compared to a third-grade country report. We learned, for instance, that certain countries were under investigation for this or that; that they were tiny islands; or that they had never won a medal. Matt Lauer explained that the King of Morocco had flown horses out to Brazil in first class. Hoda made jokes when athletes from other countries had names that sounded like English swear words. And when all else failed, they tried to find some link, however tenuous, back to the US. That’s right: even when they were covering other countries, they found a way to make it all about us.

The worst part is that NBC had explained its tape delay decision by saying that it needed time to produce the show and “put it into context” for Americans. This is a pretty dim view of the American public – which again sounds more like it is 1992 than 2016 and seems geared more toward our country’s aging mono-cultural demographic than Millennials. Yet setting that complaint aside, if Americans really do require hand-holding through something as self-explanatory as a parade of athletes bearing their countries’ flags, then the nonsense of the evening hardly helped. I have a pretty good grasp of geography and world history, but even I was confused by their obscure references that seemed to bear no relation to the actual footage I was viewing on the screen. If I started feeling dazed and confused, and my career is about understanding the world, it’s hard to believe that the average viewer did much better.

Moving Forward

If I didn’t like the coverage, why didn’t I just turn it off? It’s a fair question – and my answer is because I wanted to see it. Despite the controversies, the Olympics are a rare opportunity to lift our heads up from our national navel gazing and remember that we are part of the global community. Before we cheer for our own athletes, it is powerful to observe them as fellow participants on the world athletic stage, a rainbow of faces within an even bigger rainbow. And in an era marked by terrorism, refugee crises, and economic uncertainty, it is more important than ever to witness and rejoice in our common humanity, remembering that while our specific cultural views and practices vary, we have so much in common, and so much potential for working together.

This is ultimately why I take umbrage at NBC’s coverage. True, it is just one night – and I admit that my preferences may diverge from other viewers’. However, if Twitter is any indication, I was not alone in expecting NBC to be better at bringing a global event into American homes. To help them prepare for their next Olympics – because who are we kidding, they’ll probably get it again – I suggest the following improvements:

  • Stop kidding yourselves into thinking that people will sign up for a long-term cable contract just to stream the Olympics. Why not offer a short-term streaming package with the option to extend after the games? This would give you another revenue . . . stream . . . without alienating viewers. (For inspiration, look to HBO Now).
  • Don’t make us into an international embarrassment by saying that you have to delay coverage to help us grasp a parade of people in national uniforms – and then deliver flat, offensive, and unhelpful commentary. Instead of bombarding us with fragments of random facts during the Opening Ceremony, try focusing on celebration and appreciation. It’s not an SAT cram session, it’s a big world group hug.
  • Instead of the same old faces, why not mix it up and have a fresh team of commentators interact during the ceremony? Maybe somebody who knows how to have fun – or, how about this – an actual athlete? I vote for Leslie Jones, who has been upbeat, hilarious, and engaging during her role on Twitter – or Nastia Liukin, who has been solid and interesting while covering gymnastics.
  • Consider working with a team of intercultural experts. We really do know what we’re doing – and we can help you avoid those gaffes! Some of my colleagues have even specialized in working with culture and sports – which seems like an obvious fit with the Olympics.

Every two years, NBC broadcasts the Olympics into American homes. They give us a window on the world and an opportunity to understand our place in it. I can tell that they care about this task, as they spend a lot of time and energy producing special segments such as those featuring Tom Brokaw, so when I say that they can do better with their Opening Ceremony, it’s because I know they can. These are just my top-of-mind suggestions for improvement. What are yours? And what is your vision for how Americans meet the world through international athletics?



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