Entirely Michael Phelps-free Column!

High-definition television is the biggest advance in TV technology since color sets began elbowing bad old black-and-white out of the living room in the 1960s. So no surprise here: NBC's Olympic telecasts -- the first Summer Games transmitted entirely in HD to the U.S. -- look as good as any sports event ever has in HD. The pictures are so vivid on my 37-inch screen that the water in the swimming pool practically splashes out of the screen. I can see every bruise and blemish on the bodies and faces of the gymnasts, and grains of sand on the beach volleyball players. I can only imagine how fine the track and field events, starting today, will look like. Nice, very nice.

But in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately category, not much is really all that new about NBC's work in Beijing. Oh, the production certainly is a handsome thing. The camera work is extensive and expert (did you catch the extreme close-up shot of Shawn Johnson's foot on the balance beam last night? As Tim Daggett might say, "Incredibly sick!") and the entire look is pleasingly simple and uncluttered. Still, if the first week is any indication, this will be the first Olympics in memory in which we haven't seen a major new technical innovation.

What I mean is, the summer and winter Olympics have always been great events for impressing viewers with never-seen-before graphics and other production wizardry. Recent Olympics, for example, have brought us those name-and-flag graphics that seem to float in the pool lanes (again in good use in Beijing), and stop-motion technology that illustrates the progression of divers and gymnasts in mid-routine. And remember those knockout "simul-cam" shots during the last couple of Winter Olympics, wherein two skiers seem to be racing each other down the mountain, thanks to a technique that perfectly superimposes two moving images? (No? Check it out here).

I've yet to see anything comparable to that since Friday's Opening Ceremonies (well, okay, the Chinese did employ some state-of-the-art Hollywood fakery to improve their fireworks display). But on the off chance that I missed something, I called NBC on Thursday and asked. The helpful P.R folks sent me a three-page list of "technical innovations" that the network is employing in covering these Games. Turns out that all of the "innovations" on NBC's list have been around for years, some for more than a dozen years. All of them have been used in earlier Olympics (on NBC) or on other sports telecasts.

NBC, for instance, is employing a special "Dive-Cam" to follow the path of divers as they twist through the air and plunge into and under the water. Yes, it looks neat--just as it did when NBC introduced it at the U.S. Olympic Diving Trials in 1996 (the network even won an Emmy for it back then). The underwater camera that moves along with the swimmers as they race to the wall? That was introduced by NBC in 1992. The green line that shows world-record pace in swim events? That began with the Sydney Games in 2000. Track "rail-cams" (they move with runners down the final 100 meters of a race)? NBC introduced those in 1996, memorably following Michael Johnson on his double gold-medal runs.

NBC has nothing to be ashamed of, of course. As I said, its entire production shines. But maybe the lack of new bells and whistles suggests that television production technology has plateaued since the last magical moment. Maybe viewers will just have to wait until Vancouver in 2010 or London in 2012 to be bowled over again.

* * *

Today's commercial break: McDonald's new spot is a visual delight. Shot in the style of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and other great "wire" movies, it features two kids flipping, flying and otherwise defying gravity around Beijing's Forbidden City (or perhaps an exceptionally realistic fake). Okay, the kids are supposedly squabbling over a Chicken McNugget. But it's still a show-stopper. We could have a trend here: The two best Olympic-themed ads so far feature Chinese kids in Chinese-themed settings (the other is GE's starring a fire-breathing dragon). And the bronze medal in this category would go to Nabisco, for a charming ad in which two kids on opposite trains mimic each other's movement, including dipping an Oreo in milk.

* * *

Mary Carillo Watch, Day Three: Mary's Fun Feature of the night was a profile of the artist who designed the Olympic logo and the Beijing Games' mascots. The hook was the guy had been persecuted under Mao. Despite being hugely under-reported (Persecution? In China? When? Why?), Carillo's piece was sensitive and thoughtful and -- here's the really good news -- not the least bit embarrassing to Carillo or NBC. A first! Congrats.

By Paul Farhi  |  August 15, 2008; 2:38 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

be fair!

Posted by: xvj.2007 | August 15, 2008 8:58 AM

Why can't they make use of the cutting edge computer animation we have today? For instance, Nastia Liukin's vault last night looked perfect (even the commentators said so), but she didn't get a perfect execution score. Since they know the vault each gymnast is going to perform, couldn't they make a computer animation and show what a perfect vault would look like in split screen with the actual vault? That would illustrate the difference in a way that the average viewer could become more informed.

Posted by: Mark | August 15, 2008 10:09 AM

Those cutesy commercials are certainly not the best. Bar none, the best is for the Maryland lottery. You know, the one with the big fat guy in the leotard on the balance beam? Best line: "He's like a cat on the balance beam!"

Posted by: flipperman75 | August 15, 2008 10:57 AM

The area where NBC has innovated this year isn't on its broadcasts, but on the web. Stunning stuff on their website -- make sure you watch the 4x100 relay (the Lezak race) filmed entirely with the underwater cams. Srsly NBC's integration of broadcast & internet is really, really good.

I think NBC's making better use of its sub-networks than it has before, but the schedules remain imepenetrably dense.

I also like how they've ditched the sappy athtlete profiles.

Posted by: Georgetwoner | August 15, 2008 3:55 PM

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