|The Lost Olympics||View other pieces in "The New York Review of Books"|
|By Mark Danner||November 02, 2000|
|Tags: Media | Olympics|
Television, as Paul Klein of ABC once defined
it, is "the business of selling audiences to advertisers." As
the networks, under pressure from cable, have had increasing trouble attracting
audiences (the network share having declined from more than nine in ten
viewers a quarter-century ago to fewer than half today), "big event"
programming has grown in importance. Long before Survivor and Who
Wants to Be a Millionaire? the great sporting championships were the
prizes of television: the Super Bowl, the World Series, and, above all,
the Olympics. Not only could these be expected to draw the vast audience
that is becoming increasingly difficult to assemble; but, if the programs
were carefully and cleverly "produced"—produced, that is,
not simply as a sporting contest but as an "event" not to be missed—they
might draw an audience well stocked not only with male sports fans (highly
attractive to purveyors of beer, trucks, cars, and other "big ticket"
items), but with women as well (attractive to purveyors of a great deal
else). Such rare audiences can be sold to advertisers for an enormous amount
By the time Americans began to turn their attention to Sydney, NBC had collected $900 million from advertisers, in return for which it had promised to transform the "rights" it had bought—to two weeks of pageants, processions, races, and meets—into huge American audiences. Now, like carvers sharpening their chisels before a hunk of wood, NBC's army of writers, technicians, cameramen, and, of course, producers, with the help of an estimated $100 million, turned to the task of "production." They were not "covering the XXIV Olympiad" but "producing" it, and at the start they had before them nothing but a great quivering hunk of "content."
"Content," in this contemporary usage, bespeaks a certain attitude toward all those supposedly separate things—video, music, writing of all kinds—among which it pointedly refuses to distinguish; it is an attitude, above all, of mastery. Content is material to be acquired, acted upon; images, sounds, writing are there to be subjugated, used, controlled. Out of the vastly diverse content of Sydney, Australia, NBC's producers needed to construct a story, a narrative, complete with characters, themes, and subplots designed to attract the broadest possible audience, including those—mainly women—who they hoped would watch because of the "stars," the "drama," the "thrill of the event."
As they had done at the Atlanta games, which (despite some criticism) had drawn a vast audience and scored a huge financial success, the producers preselected certain American stars—Michael Johnson and his "shoes of gold," Marion Jones and her "drive for five" gold medals—and assembled soft-focus background pieces emphasizing the personal struggles of the athletes. Building on "marquee" competitions like diving, gymnastics, and track and field, and concentrating on American athletes, they carefully packaged each evening's telecasts. For Sydney, these broadcasts would be constructed entirely of tape segments: features, promotions, interviews, and, of course, the competitions themselves, all of which would have taken place at least sixteen hours before. Though it would have been possible to broadcast many events, including some very popular ones, live, NBC decided against it. The content would be carefully constructed, assembled, controlled.
Running through the many complaints about NBC's Sydney Olympics—that programs were "overproduced" and "overedited," that they were distastefully nationalistic in their focus on American competitors and solipsistic in their insistence on ignoring when events actually happened, that they were both choppy in their constant cutting and seamless in their melding together of commercials and competitions and "features"—was a single issue, that of control. "Packaging" a race that had occurred sixteen hours before—of which the viewers, with access not only to the Internet but to newspapers and other television sports news, already knew the results—the producers insisted, in effect, that it was happening now. Broadcasting an event like the decathlon, say, in which an Estonian won, the producers stubbornly maintained that the American, who finished third, was the true star. Excerpting a single high jump here, a single javelin throw there, ignoring the rhythm of the events themselves, the producers worked relentlessly to force viewers' attention onto those they had already designated, and the sponsors had already preselected, as the true stars.
Sporting competitions are tiny stories, driven, like most stories, by suspense; a sporting tournament like the Olympics is a great assemblage of narratives, small and large, the life-breath of which are doubt, risk, uncertainty, and, at last, the moment of catharsis. Only after the climax do we return to the tonal key. A viewer of NBC's Olympics, however, was subjected to a blizzard of narratives, sometimes hundreds, every hour; but most of these—and, most important, the ones that offered closure—were either promotions, features, or commercials.
What was striking about the Olympics was not only that there were "too many commercials"—though in fact NBC's "network commercial load" did not greatly exceed that of a normal prime-time show—but that every part of the broadcast seemed to become part of a commercial. This was not only a matter of the constant hype, which, in the case of the most heavily promoted stars, often became unendurable. ("This is the time to savor and appreciate Michael [Johnson] as you would a living work of art, a magnificent statue...golden shoes flashing, a runner for the ages!") Nor was it only the dizzying speed with which athletes transformed themselves into corporate pitchmen. (American women soccer players, after kicking the ball around the Olympic playing field, popped up in a commercial kicking lettuce and watermelons around a grocery store; Stacy Dragila, after winning the women's pole vault, soared over the bar a few seconds later in a credit card commercial in which VISA "congratulated" her.)
More than anything, it was the broadcast's stuttering, jarring pace that seemed to struggle against the narratives of the races and matches themselves. The effect was that of one commercial after another, strung together like beads on a string. A typical sixty minutes of Olympic time, drawn from the evening of Wednesday, September 20, breaks down thus  :
What stands out is not simply what isn't
there—much sports competition—but what is: a rhythm built of
tiny segments, most of them no longer than thirty seconds. Not only do
the eighteen minutes of commercial time make up at least thirty-two "little
narratives," most of them having Olympic themes and many boasting
the very athletes appearing in the games, but the number of commercial
breaks mean that the "programming" itself usually lasts no more
than six minutes—and those sections are further subdivided by the
promotions, the in-studio banter, and the seven or eight features, many
of which appear indistinguishable from the advertisements themselves:
athletes, shot in slow motion, with quick cuts, alternating black-and-white
and color, all of it overlaid with portentous music. As a result the viewer
saw, on average, no more than three or four minutes of continuous sports
programming. What's more, while the commercials stayed precisely the same—compact
narratives, leading to completion, often involving sports—the contests
remained naggingly open, and NBC, the manipulating voice of authority,
relentlessly "teased" these precious wisps of suspenseful plot
line across scores of commercial breaks, until the most important and
most anticipated events were finally shown to irritated viewers—who
were well aware that the NBC producers could show these taped segments
whenever they chose—only after eleven o'clock
See David Bauder, "NBC's Coverage No Medal Winner with Nation's TV Critics," Associated Press, September 22, 2000; and Caryn James, "Sydney 2000: High Camp and the Games' Cookie," The New York Times, September 27, 2000.
 These numbers represent an average drawn from three hours' viewing. See The Ledger (Lakeland, Florida), September 23, 2000, p. A12.