The Shill of Victory

By now, it's old news that several elements of these Olympics have been as phony as a knockoff Prada purse. Mind you, I'm not exactly shocked that some of the fireworks at the Opening Ceremonies, and most of the kids who performed in it, weren't quite what they seemed. I'm not even sure that having organized posses of "cheer squads" to cover up the empty acreage at Olympic venues deserves much more than a shrug (don't the Academy Awards do the same thing?). In any case, I'm all for stagecraft. And who are we as Americans to whine about a little manipulation with our extravaganzas? We invented that sort of thing.

But it would be nice to know about who's doing the string pulling and maybe why they've done it. NBC doesn't seem to want to tell me. In case I missed the network's investigative reporting (I've watched just about every minute of the primetime coverage), the network has basically decided to pass on any mention of it.

My friends at NBC News will be happy to point out how they've covered all the grimy little aspects of the Games, and then some. Good on you, boys, but that's not quite the same thing. About 8 million people watched "NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams" last week; NBC's primetime Olympic telecasts are averaging around 30 million viewers. So shifting responsibility to the news division and scrubbing the inconvenient facts from the much larger main event doesn't entirely count as informing the public.

Of course, NBC never said it was in Beijing to cover a news event. At the risk of repeating myself, NBC treats the Games as a sports-themed entertainment event featuring an exotic backdrop and the colorful people of many lands. It "packages" the Games as a series of mini-dramas with themes of athletic triumph, striving and loss. Hence the tales of competitors who have a "dream" or are on a "journey" (in one of last night's gauzy featurettes, American gymnast Nastia Liukin and her father-coach Valeri confessed to having both "dreams" and "journeys"). When that's your game, you're not about to start bumming people out with too many cold hard facts.

Besides, NBC's advertisers like it when viewers are in a good mood when the commercials start.

It's bad enough that NBC won't say a word about the big, unpleasant issues surrounding China during these Olympics. But now it's clear that it can't be bothered with the smaller stuff, either.

By Paul Farhi  |  August 19, 2008; 12:19 AM ET
Previous: Is There a Medal-Stand Script? | Next: Glad You Asked, NBC


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well. as a chinese i have to thank u for your genuine passion for my country while u basically know nothing about it.

Posted by: js | August 19, 2008 4:04 AM

you are just now realizing this in about entertainment

lighten up and enjoy the ride. Its August for pete sakes

Posted by: Anonymous | August 19, 2008 9:39 AM

Okay, while I feel NBC's Olympic coverage (not just here, but over the past many that they've covered) is absolutely execrable, I do feel that Olympic coverage should be about the athletes and the sports they are playing.

If I want to find out more about the scandal-ettes or things going on around the Games, I come here or other news sources. Perhaps - instead of nauseating fluff piece after nauseating fluff piece - they could swap one out with a section on "Here's the hard news about the Olympics today" section. But as you note, that is kind of a buzz-kill for the type of viewer NBC is obviously pandering towards. It's just not gonna happen. Maybe they could have a scroll with a blog or web site to direct people to harder news coverage.

Personally, I would just rather see better and cohesive coverage across the board. With the time-lag certain delays and things are going to happen, can't get around that. But the taped items are so mangled (and skewed) that I told my husband last night it's not that I'm tired of the Olympics, I'm tired of the coverage.

He shrugged, and then waited in frustration for women's pole vaulting coverage (he is a former track geek like you, Mr. Fahri). They split it up into three brief pieces, the last part showing only that the US vaulter gained a silver to the Russian world-record holder (after tipping the bar). And then proceeded to show her getting brow-beaten and barely congratulated by her coach for her failure in winning a silver medal instead of a gold. It was embarrassing and unnecessary and pointless.

But hey - we got to see *every* moment of Nastia Liukin's *walk* to the medal podium for the uneven bars in addition to the actual ceremony (and the earlier comforting she received from her coach for her loss). That was a good use of air time, for certain.

Oh - and while they showed the interview with the three Americans who swept the 400 m hurdles, did they show THEIR medal ceremony (or the Women's Pole Vaulting)? Not one second of it. I guess because the track athletes generally aren't under 5 feet tall, sporting slicked back ponytails, and their costumes - while form fitting and brief - feature no sequins.

The kicker was that last night they started the little feature about how NBC felt our pain about the prime-time Olympics running so late. Fine - I'd rather you feel my pain about how you're butchering my Olympic coverage and just show more sports, less back-story and certainly less commercials (or at least stress to your sponsors to have more than one prepped - I feel like I've heard the same music and jingles non-stop for the past 10 days).

Oh, and by the way? Print/web press isn't much better. It's all over the front pages that Shawn Johnson won gold today. I'm sure it will be there all day. That Jonathan Horton of the Men's team won silver is a minor highlight (and I'm expecting just enough coverage of that to make the family members of the Men's team vaguely satisfied). The last I checked, the Olympics is not actually all about Women's Gymnastics, and I'm tired of the stressed coverage on their achievements. There are lots of other people and teams medaling, and it would be nice to balance the coverage across the board, so that US residents can see the broad scope of athletics we produce at present.

Posted by: Chasmosaur | August 19, 2008 11:16 AM

Hey Farhi! It's sportsmanship. It's entertainment. It happens once every four years. Hang on and enjoy the ride. As Lincoln said, "A man is about as happy as he makes up his mind to be." You are missing a lot with your attitude.

Posted by: Karol | August 19, 2008 11:21 AM

I suspect that NBC is no showing as many medal ceremonies when the USA wins because of the atrocious recording on the "Star Spangled Banner" which has been played... Sure infuriates this proud "son of Maryland"!!!

Posted by: Bellasdad | August 19, 2008 12:17 PM

I'm as upset as anyone by both the putrid TV coverage and the self-righteous hucksterism of the PRC, but I have to agree with Chasmosaur; I don't see that the Olympic coverage should include the meta-issues in addition to the sporting issues. In fact, while I think it's appropriate for the commentators, who are usually former competitors in the sport at hand, to comment on their perception of the scores as they happen, I think the rants Bob Costas kept pushing for from Bela Karolyi were just in bad taste, even though I think the judging was awful, too.

I've never been so happy to watch everything on my DVRs...

Posted by: The Cosmic Avenger | August 19, 2008 12:26 PM

Man!! You're losing in the ranking medals!!!!I can't believe you americans are fooling yourselves with this!! The gold medals that matters and China has
a lot more than you!!! China is the first in this olympic games and you know that. If the way of counting medals is like this my country, Brazil, will send an entire team just to get bronze medals hehehehe

Posted by: Marcos | August 19, 2008 9:20 PM

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