NBC's Unreality Show
Five days in, and I'm getting that sinking feeling.
Oh, sure, the sports fan in me likes what I'm seeing (Michael Phelps: pretty good, huh?). And yes, the pictures are gorgeous, from the steadicam flyovers of the Great Wall (all hail HD!) to the underwater shots at the swimming arena. But the journalist and human being in me isn't quite so amused. It's what NBC hasn't, and probably won't, show that gives me pause.
Political protests? Not on this channel; no sir. Beijing's fearful pollution? Maybe, but only if a marathoner coughs up a lung or it spoils a beauty shot. Doping scandals? In passing, perhaps. Tibet? China's role in Darfur? Now, wait just a second. . . The aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake? Why be unreasonable. . . Tiananmen? Mao's barbarities? No, and hell no.
Okay, that's not what the Olympics are about. The Olympics are basically a big international sports festival and global media event attached to a massive corporate marketing opportunity. I've got no problem with that. But they're not not about those other things, either. Especially these Olympics, which are freighted with as much political baggage and extracurricular significance as any Olympiad since Moscow in 1980 -- whether NBC wants to own up to it or not.
The closest NBC has come to addressing any of these issues during primetime was during Bob Costas's solid interview of President Bush on Sunday (this would be the interview in which Bush said, "First of all, I don't see America having problems."). Costas also slipped in a couple of references during the Opening Ceremonies (he seemed particularly exercised about China's denial of a visa to Joey Cheek, the Darfur activist and former American Olympian, but hasn't said much about it since).
Apart from these glancing shots, however, NBC has succeeded in screening out anything unpleasant -- that is, anything newsworthy -- during its first five nights of coverage. Indeed, it has gone in precisely the opposite direction. NBC has depicted China as only the People's Chamber of Commerce could, showing us a prosperous, harmonious and deeply beautiful nation, swathed in culture and garlanded by history.
For two nights running, NBC's chief China promoter has been correspondent Mary Carillo, who has presented two of the glossiest travelogues imaginable. On Monday, she breathlessly reported on China's wonders: Maglev trains! World's tallest man! The Great Wall (which, Carillo said, can be seen from outer space -- although it's not clear if it can). She even oohed and aahed over the massive Three Gorges Dam, offering some astounding statistics about its construction but not a word on the 1.5 million people forcibly removed from their homes to build it. All that was missing was a feature on panda bears.
Carillo got to that on Tuesday night, first going all warm and fuzzy about the critters and then all wink-wink-wink about the Chinese program to mate them (awkward and non-hilarious moment: Her suggestion to a perplexed Chinese official that male pandas might offer "Whitman Samplers" to females during courtship).
Can't we expect more? No, I'm sure we can't. Not with $900 million in TV rights payments on the table. Not with hundreds of millions more in sponsor commitments. As my esteemed colleague Michael Wilbon pointed out in his Web chat on Tuesday, it's probably too much to expect NBC, or any broadcaster in partnership with a sports league or team, to give you information and insight into serious issues involving said league or team. Wilbon's advice: "Read The Post and The New York Times and other responsible newspapers with reporters and columnists who are unafraid."
I'm sure he's right. But just once in the next two weeks, I'm hoping for something more than a postcard. I'm hoping that NBC might let just a little bit of reality peak through the unreal haze of Beijing.
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