We gave it a B-
As I write this, the swimming Aussie, Ian ”The Thorpedo” Thorpe, is literally big-footing media coverage of the Sydney Olympics. The 17-year-old Thorpe’s size-17 feet — the aquatic equivalent of human flippers — have helped him achieve the hallowed gold medal in the 400m freestyle event, and set a new world record. Meanwhile, at the other end of his body, the ”Water Wizard of Oz” (c’mon, is NBC making up these cornball nicknames or what?) was flashing a commercial-endorsement-qualifying grin whenever he wasn’t offering humble comments on his pool proficiency.
Certainly, the Games themselves exude gaudy showmanship, starting with an opening ceremony complete with a damp duet by what Katie Couric called ”two Ozzie legends,” Olivia Newton-John and John Farnham (who? he must be the Down Under Neil Diamond), plus a march of nations in which too many countries seemed to have invested in little white porkpie hats. But as we relearn with every Olympic broadcast, American TV coverage is all about packaging potential stars, turning this supposedly idealistic athletic competition into a new opportunity to hook viewers on fresh celebrities. Thus, NBC hypes Thorpe as assiduously as it does Oliver Platt, star of the network’s ceaselessly promoted new drama Deadline, which will premiere … well, after the Olympics and somewhere around the presidential debates and — hey, is the new TV season ever going to begin, and if so, will anyone care?
Using the 15-hour Australia time delay to freeze-dry the Olympics, NBC pads nearly every time-out with heavily produced profiles of competitors, in the process removing any pretense of real-time competition and suspense. NBC’s stories emphasize every past victory and injury, every personal detail that might not merely heighten the drama, but also distort it with melodrama. (The network practically manufactured an instant TV movie recounting Thorpe’s friendship with his brother-in-law’s young brother, Michael Williams, who has cancer.)
The Netherlands’ Inge de Bruijn, whose long nails with white fingernail polish could’ve set off a rash of jokey comments from NBC’s commentators, was instead deservedly commended for setting a world record in the 100m butterfly race. But elsewhere, reflexive sexism prevailed: Women’s water polo entrant Maureen O’Toole isn’t noteworthy just because she remains a superb athlete at the age of 39, but because, golly, she’s ”the only mother on the [U.S.] team”! Cut to close-up of O’Toole’s adorable 8-year-old daughter Kelly saying how much she misses Mommy when she leaves for a competition. (Number of children I’ve seen pining for their athlete daddies thus far? Zero.)
In general, the level of discourse from a slew of commentators on NBC as well as MSNBC, CNBC, and quite possibly every household appliance manufactured by corporate owner General Electric (I could swear my microwave asked me to tune in to women’s volleyball the other day) has been dismal. One drippy cliché — ”a wonderful tapestry of humanity” — slops over into another — ”everything we dream is fragile at best.” The calm centers of eloquence amid all this bubbly burble are broadcast anchors Hannah Storm, serenely lucid, and Bob Costas, who spontaneously rattles off pertinent stats and wry opinion in grammar so impeccable that it could be diagrammed on a blackboard by your kid’s English teacher.
NBC’s other broadcast-booth asset is the immensely popular Latino soccer announcer Andres Cantor, famous for his full-throated scoring cry ”G-o-o-o-o-a-a-a-a-a-l-l-l-l!!!” Cantor, who also offers crisp, pointed criticism (”The referee was clearly wrong in making that foul call”), should, as far as I’m concerned, be used for as many Olympic events as possible. Imagine the possibilities. Archery: ”Boool’s-e-y-y-y-y-e-e-e-e-e!”
When you’re watching for hours on end, ads become as notable as the Games themselves, and in this area, let me single out a spot for a campaign called Truth, in which demonstrators pile up 1,200 sacks labeled ”body bag” outside an office building, using bullhorns to tell the supposed tobacco-company execs inside that their weed kills this many people a day. Amid tedious ads for cars and clever ones for Frasier, this commercial is a doozy.
The best thing about the Olympics is that they often provoke interest in unlikely sports. For me, it was water polo, in which players maintained impossible buoyancy (they’re penalized if they touch the pool bottom) while performing one-handed slams into the goal. Cameras placed under the water revealed ruthless competitors illegally yanking on their opponents’ bathing suits to hold them back. Talk about your excitement down under. The whole shebang so far: B-