NBC's 100-Meter Profiles

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 20, 2008

For these Olympics, NBC is getting up close but not quite so personal in the canned profiles and features that appear each night during the Games.

Where once the heavily produced "up-close-and-personal" segments emphasized athletes' hardships and struggles -- impoverished upbringings, triumph over injuries, midnight political defections -- NBC's overall approach this time around is lighter, tighter and slighter.

On Monday night, for example, Russian pole vaulter Irina Isinbayeva got the spotlight with a breezy, minute-long featurette on her taste in fashion and her posh lifestyle in Monte Carlo, Monaco. American gymnast Nastia Liukin and her coach-father, Valeri, later appeared in a piece in which they briefly discussed their Olympic "journey."

Other segments have focused on swimmer Natalie Coughlin's gourmet cooking, beach volleyball player Misty May-Treanor's gold necklace (a gift from a coach) and a romantic triangle involving rival swimmers from France and Italy. None of these pieces lasted longer than about 90 seconds.

The featurettes were introduced in the 1970s by legendary ABC sports producer Roone Arledge and have been a critical part of Olympics TV coverage ever since. Because most Olympic sports seldom appear on prime-time TV, the videos provide a little background -- and build rooting interest -- in people most viewers have never heard of. The strategy is simple: Make even casual viewers care about discus throwers, kayakers, volleyball players and the like.

"You start off these Games, really any Games, with people recognizing a handful of athletes, Shawn Johnson and some of the gymnasts, beach volleyball and, particularly, Michael Phelps," said Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports and Olympics. ". . . So the viewers want and need to know about who these athletes are as people each night."

The pieces are also important in setting up story lines that NBC has scripted for various sports. Viewers, for instance, have been told repeatedly that China's gymnasts are facing unbearable "pressure" from their 1.3 billion countrymen to bring home gold medals (NBC's announcers have said far less about the potential advantages of competing on home soil). So, in NBC's short feature, members of the Chinese men's team posed in shadowed light, with businesslike, almost grim facial expressions.

NBC began changing its approach during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City after audience research indicated that viewers wanted the profiles in "an unobtrusive, bite-size fashion," said David Neal, NBC's executive vice president of Olympics coverage, via e-mail from Beijing.

Thereafter, the number, tone and length of the packaged profiles began to change. NBC says it is broadcasting fewer of them than in past Olympics, although it declined to provide specific figures. Most of the pieces have been cut down to about 30 seconds, instead of three minutes or more during earlier Games. NBC says about half the subjects are non-Americans.

The typical profile includes several shots of the athlete in competition, a few glimpses of him training in his home town and a brief sound bite or two. Then it's back to the action.

The features "must advance our storytelling without interrupting the pace of the broadcast," Neal says. "Our prime-time show is competition-driven. Anytime we take our viewers away from the arena, it must be for a very compelling reason."

Part of NBC's strategy is to shift what Ebersol and Neal call "the storytelling" -- the tear-jerking biographical stories that became a staple of the "up-close" featurettes -- into the commentary of the announcers as a game or event unfolds.

That has produced plenty of sentimental and treacly observations from the people describing the action. Slate.com -- the online magazine owned by The Washington Post Co. -- has meticulously detailed this via its "Sap-o-Meter," a running tally of the 33 most syrupy words ("sacrifice," "dream," "courage"). After Monday night's coverage, "mom" was leading in the Sap-o-Meter standings, with 70 cumulative mentions.

In a further effort to humanize the competitors, NBC has shown numerous reaction shots from the parents of the athletes. Michael Phelps's mother, Debbie, got so much air time during her son's record-setting week that she seemed nearly as ubiquitous in prime time as the swimmer himself.

For the most part, the athletes that NBC has chosen to profile have warranted the attention by winning medals. The network's piece on Liukin and her father ran just before the gymnast took the silver medal on the uneven parallel bars, losing the gold on a tiebreaker to China's He Kexin.

But it doesn't always work out that way. NBC aired a piece about the tabloid rivalry between swimmers Laure Manaudou of France and Frederica Pellegrini of Italy -- Manaudou's boyfriend left her for Pellegrini -- before both finished well out of the medals in their head-to-head race.

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