I always dreamed of living in an era before the Internet, without Twitter or online streaming or live breaking-news updates. And watching the tape-delayed Olympics on NBC, I feel like I’m there.
It’s just like I pictured: I would gather around the large, box-shaped television with my extended family and adjust the rabbit ears, and we would watch, riveted, as something that had happened hours ago appeared on the screen, preferably in black and white. And Bob Costas would be there.
Time travel is expensive. And if you hit the wrong button, you might end up preventing Richard Nixon’s birth. But watching NBC, you are magically transported back dozens of years to an era before the Internet — with no effort whatsoever on your part. It’s like they didn’t notice that the past twenty years had happened.
To say that this has spawned some complaints is an understatement. We have gotten complaining down to an art form, a form with rules and traditions of its own that are only marginally more arbitrary than those of gymnastics.
Someone started a parody account for NBC’s tape-delayed Olympics. “The #Olympics start in about an hour but don’t worry America you will still receive tape-delayed clips of Bob Costas talking,” it tweeted.
Do they not realize that we live in an age of 25/7 media updates? Some people on Twitter tell you what is happening before it has actually happened. Tune into the Olympics on NBC and you have a constant sense of deja-vu, or at least deja-read-a-Twitter-update-about. It’s how I imagine psychics feel when watching the Super Bowl.
You can be on Twitter, or you can enjoy the Olympics on NBC, but you cannot do both. It used to be that Twitter just prevented you from enjoying or appreciating the things that were going on around you at the time. But now it’s ruining things that happened hours ago in a foreign country. Heck, the radio knows what happened before NBC will tell you. That’s saying something.
NBC’s efforts to pretend that none of this is a problem remind me of the awkward moment at a historical reenactment when a plane flies overhead. “A curious bird!” Colonial Interpreter William says, cocking his head. “Lo, there be demon spirits in the wind!”
NBC has put so much effort into replicating the conditions of the past. “Context,” quipped Darren Rovell, “NBC’s ideal viewer is someone who doesn’t get sports text alerts, doesn’t appointment stream or get on Twitter.” “NBC’s ideal viewer still lives in 1987,” joked NotBillWalton.
“What’s that demon tablet you are holding in your hand?” NBC shrieks, overdoing it a little. “Put that thing away! You can’t possibly know the results yet! Hey, Michael Dukakis!”
Frankly my biggest complaint about NBC’s Olympic presentation is the picture quality. It’s too good. It really takes me out of the moment. My ideal picture would just be a giant image of a transistor radio, or, failing that, Franklin Delano Roosevelt looking steely yet hopeful. If you’re going back, you might as well go all the way.
In fact, better than all this would be if NBC deployed a series of pigeons to fly in and tell me the results of the games days later, after forcing me to listen to hours of advertising.
Perhaps we will eventually come to view the tape delay not as a sign that NBC still has its head firmly buried in the past but as a delightful eccentricity of the season, similar to the way every Christmastide all the radios and television stations conspire to give the impression that it is the 1950s.
The Olympics are already a throwback to a bygone era. Peace? Torches? Sport? Giant babies? We’ve come unhinged from reality; let’s come unstuck in time as well.