Nonplussed by the Olympics as an educational tool

NPR did a decent job of summarizing how “NBC’s broken Olympic coverage manages to annoy absolutely everyone.”

My own take is quite simple. I find the way sports are covered in America to be viscerally grating as TV reporting covers the action at a glacial pace and seems compelled to spend as much time as possible showing you interviews and other content that isn’t actually the game or competition you sat down to watch.

Case in point, the subject of the Olympics came up one morning as our daughter wanted photos in the newspaper explained to her. So, we decided to show her the figure skating competition that would be aired early in the evening on TV.

That NBC was delaying the broadcast past her bedtime and that it would have been more convenient to watch it earlier in the day live was beside the point.

NBC’s idea for covering figure skating was to show one couple’s brief performance and then 30 minutes of several other sports (luge, speed skating and I believe a third I can’t recall, plus interviews), then one more figure skating performance and then 30 more minutes of not-figure-skating.

I yearn for the day when enough homes are wired with true fiber optic broadband Internet access (not cable/DSL) and the Olympic Committee realizes it can bypass TV networks to deliver every competition in its entirety to individual customers and reap tremendous profits directly in the process… while maintaining the integrity of the Olympic spectacle.

Currently, the value of presenting the Olympics to my daughter as a competition bringing the nations of the world together in a common activity… well, it completely fails… not just because of the annoyances mentioned above, but because, as NPR calls it, we are shown a “USA-Plus” edition of the Olympics.

We see the US teams plus a handful of other teams that happen, in hindsight, to be visually interesting (re: mistakes are made) or (again, in hindsight) are known to be among the 2nd and 3rd place finishers. And, of course, if America isn’t expected to win a medal, the competition is much less likely to be aired.

As an educational tool, NBC has ruined the Olympics. Here’s to hoping World Cup offers a better job of presenting a global perspective.


13 Responses to “Nonplussed by the Olympics as an educational tool”

  1. Natalie says:

    The only Olympics coverage I’ve seen has been mens ice skating, and then only because a friend and I went to a pub and they had it on tv. I was glad it was set to closed captioning since the sportscaster(s) kept yammering on about how any imperfections in some guy’s routine were a “learning experience” and other trite, condescending psychobabble. They spent an astounding amount of time with the camera on some guy we guessed was the favorite – saw him walking into the building, swinging his arms, stretching, standing, staring off into space, etc. (boring!)

    We were disappointed to find out we couldn’t watch via internet. We don’t have a tv at home (old one broke and we never watched enough to justify buying a new one). I would love to be able to bypass NBC’s jingoistic USA-Plus coverage!

    February 23rd, 2010 at 7:39 am

  2. Shannon says:

    I’ve watched a bit of hockey and figure skating so far. Hockey only because the other members of my household are very dedicated Sharks fans, but fortunately it is the only sport that NBC covers straight through, without annoyingly cutting out to other sports. For the figure skating, I’ve programmed the DVR and gone back through to fast-forward to the actual skating parts. In Sunday night’s ice dancing competition, I believe only two performances were shown in 2.5 hours. If not for the DVR, I’d be avoiding the Olympics for all the extra garbage they stick in.

    On top of the other complaints, I would like to add that NBC has been unreliable in it’s programming descriptions. We’ve recorded a few blocks of programming that we thought had coverage of a hockey game or ice skating, only to discover…curling.

    February 23rd, 2010 at 10:00 am

  3. Allison says:

    Yep, I have to agree. We haven’t watched much of the Olympics at all this time around. It doesn’t work as an educational tool and even after my son is in bed I can’t stand the commentary, some of which has been down right insulting to other countries, and the all to frequent commercial breaks.

    February 23rd, 2010 at 12:24 pm

  4. KGS says:

    One of the principal joys of watching the games with my parents as a teenager in the early 90s was cheering for whomever hadn’t gotten any press coverage, then laughing at the commentators as they tried to cover up the fact that by filming the favorites doing things like heroically using a drinking fountain they’d failed to research the first thing about the un-favorite who ended up winning. You find family bonding where you can, I guess!

    February 23rd, 2010 at 12:26 pm

  5. Nancy T. says:

    My complaint about the coverage is the abundance of commercials. When they do focus on one event for an extended period of time (30 minutes), then you see one racer (or whatever), then a block of commercials, come back to see another racer, then more commercials. It’s all on tape delay anyway, do they really have to shove more commercials in our faces?

    February 23rd, 2010 at 12:49 pm

  6. Kelly says:

    I agree with all of the above comments which is why our household is DVRing the Olympics and fast forwarding through the fluff. However, my husband and I have discovered that occasionally Bob Costas will channel Fred Willard’s announcer from the movie “Best in Show” with some off the wall comment which makes watching the announcer headquarter segments more entertaining.

    February 23rd, 2010 at 1:29 pm

  7. Mark says:

    NBC has been blasted from all corners for their handling of the Olympics coverage — but people are still tuning in in droves, as the primetime coverage has rolled through the ratings like a juggernaut every night. Clearly people still find the Olympics compelling enough to suffer through the hamhanded way the network has handled it.

    I find it interesting that anyone would complain there is not enough figure skating on, as it seems like every time I turn around there is somebody gliding along in sparkles and spandex — but then, that is the part that I am mentally “fast forwarding” through.

    I’m a more mainstream sports fan and would love to see more of the traditional events — skiing, speedskating, hockey — along with the more esoteric ones that I really have zero idea what’s going on but are awfully fun to watch, like luge, bobsled, biathalon, curling, etc. It seems like NBC has decided to turn the Olympics into the Lifetime Sports Network, with warm and fuzzy human interest stories, manufactured drama, and advertising/promos primarily geared to women and people who otherwise wouldn’t be watching sports. (The webzine Slate has a running “Sap-O-Meter” to track how many times a night commentators use emotional appeals to describe the athletes or events.) It’s almost like a reality show that happens to have an athletics competition in the background, and it’s frustrating beyond belief — but it says something to the impact of the Games that it’s still appointment viewing. It would be nice if there was a bit more balance to try and appeal towards a broader audience, but as long as it’s working NBC seems to be satisfied to do things their way.

    Here’s a good article on the state of the televised Olympics from’s TV critic Alan Sepinwall:

    February 23rd, 2010 at 2:02 pm

  8. AJ says:

    I think the ratings performance of the Olympics says more about the dreadful quality of non-Olympic programming airing on broadcast and cable channels.

    My gripe about figure skating is that it’s not shown as a continuous event. We see one pair of skaters perform, then NBC cuts to a different sport and so on. If you want to watch one specific event, you’re screwed because NBC treats the Olympics like a variety show.

    February 23rd, 2010 at 2:22 pm

  9. Mary A says:

    I seem to go in cycles with watching- and this year, have been watching nearly every night. I echo the previous comments though on the spotty coverage and skipping around. I’m on the east coast, and it will take me weeks to catch up on sleep from all the late nights staying up to see the events I like. When did prime time become “after 10pm”?
    My 8yr old is really enjoying it too, which is most of the reason behind watching this year- but he has YET to see the one thing he wants to see- a USA gold medal ceremony, as they all seem to come on after his bedtime (we don’t have a DVR thingy).

    Personally, I really enjoy the special interest stories. Gives me someone to cheer for, especially in sports I don’t have much background in.

    But the incessant cameras stuck in the faces of the athletes every second? Geez, NBC, give them room to breathe! It’s like they are digging for the errrant swear word or mean comment so they can report on it. Loses a little of the spirit of the games that way.

    February 23rd, 2010 at 2:50 pm

  10. Mark says:

    AJ — as the article I linked pointed out, they are treating ALL the sports like that except for hockey (and curling, from what I’ve seen.) They want to make sure that you’re not turning to something else while you’re waiting for the event you actually want to see. They’ll give a little blurb saying that so-and-so is coming up in 10 minutes, but other than that there seems to be no way to tell when a specific event will be televised. For those of us in the Mountain and Pacific time zones, it’s especially manipulative because they are tape delaying every single moment of the coverage, despite being in the SAME FREAKING TIMEZONE AS VANCOUVER!!!

    Nancy, as to your point about the commercials — the Wall St Journal actually did a test where they timed everything in a 3 1/2 hour prime time broadcast. Commercials outpaced actual events, 56 minutes of ads to 53 minutes of action. Ye gods.

    February 23rd, 2010 at 4:35 pm

  11. Jen says:

    You can watch Canadian coverage online at

    February 23rd, 2010 at 6:30 pm

  12. Ellen says:

    Of course NBC’s coverage is American-ized…we’re in America! With the sheer number of athletes competing, it’s not realistic to cover all sports and all nationalities.

    February 24th, 2010 at 7:41 pm

  13. Rob V. says:

    We really enjoyed the Olympics this year as our big kids (10 and 8) paid attention to the nationalities of the competitors and our 2 year old kept asking for ice skating all day and night. We also live in the best possible location for watching coverage – Central time zone – there is little on past 9 pm other than the finalists and the big kids can stay up that late. The two year old meanwhile gets his fill of Olympics starting at 6:30 pm! While this timezone was great for the Olympics, it is really bad for most other TV because the “adult” shows start at 9, rather than 10 for you west-coasters.

    We were able to watch 16 days of Olympics at our house. No DVR. No whining about no medal coverage. It was great.

    March 8th, 2010 at 6:30 pm

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