Excitement! Drama! (Oh, and Athletes, Too.)
By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 8, 1998
My first clue that the Winter Olympics were upon us came when my girlfriend began watching all those figure skating exhibitions that pop up on television every four years as America prepares to meet its new ice queen. My girlfriend's addiction has been remarkable. Never much of a sports fan, she began videotaping competitions and replaying them again and again. Before long, she was humming the tune of "Lyra Angelica," the music from Michelle Kwan's long program.
Nagano '98 has begun, and I expect her addiction to continue another fortnight. If there has ever been a sporting event that appeals to the non-sports fan, it's the Olympics. That's because what we'll see during countless hours of programming from CBS has little to do with sports.
Sure, there will be elite athletes striving on the ultimate stage. There will be world records, tragic mistakes, winners and losers. But, as CBS knows, the Olympics have become bigger than a mere sporting event. With an international cast and dramatic story lines, the Olympics have become the Ultimate Show, a Global Happening and, above all else, a Television Broadcasting Extravaganza!
But something is getting lost along the way.
The driving force behind the Olympic spectacle is TV ratings. As the fees for Olympics rights have soared over the past two decades CBS paid $375 million to televise the Games this year network executives are no longer content to reach America's core sports audience generally men in their twenties, thirties and forties. Instead, the networks target families for Olympics promotions. Their strategy is to focus less on the action and more on personalities, rivalries and cultural differences between nations.
That strategy is evident in the way the network executives talk. "The Olympics are not simply sports. They are great TV drama," explains George Schweitzer, CBS's vice president for marketing. "It's about emotion and competition. It has many, many aspects not related to who's playing. [Viewers] want an event that transcends sports, [is] emotional in nature, story telling at its best."
Translation: The drama of sport is not enough.
The upshot is that what we're fed as Olympic coverage is slickly packaged, highly stylized segments in which the presentation of the actual games is sacrificed for heartwarming features aboutthe athletes overcoming tremendous odds. By now, most everyone who watches TV is familiar with the kind of pieces I'm talking about, the ones ABC famously titled "Up Close and Personal" in 1984. Every network has its own name for them, but the formula is the same. Usually, Athlete X is shown in his or her hometown, practicing alone. Maybe there's a shot of Mom, smiling proudly. Soft, fuzzy lighting. An emotional voice-over telling us how difficult life has been for Athlete X. And a triumphant musical score in the background.
As soon as the piece ends, the producers cut back to the announcer, who is live at the rink, gym or ski slope. The announcer explains in breathless tones that Athlete X is about to find out whether all those hours and years of practice and sacrifice will pay off. Then we see a minute or two of the actual event, and, assuming Athlete X wins, we all feel happy and content. The networks hit us with their advertisements and sitcom promos and then return us to a quick update on which country has the most medals. Go, USA!
For me, the Olympics have become nearly unwatchable. Every Olympic season, as the broadcasts get longer on story telling and shorter on action, we sports purists howl in protest. Give us more raw footage of the actual games, we wail. But television executives today have instant access to ratings, and we don't count for much, it turns out.
One of the factors network executives say drives their coverage is that women watch the Olympics in numbers unprecedented for sports television especially the Winter Games, where figure skating is king or, rather, queen. One CBS executive guesses that women will make up 60 percent of the total audience in the coming two weeks. What the executives have decided is that they would lose more female viewers if they give up their story-telling approach than they would lose male viewers if they stick with it.
"The traditional sports viewer, a man between 18 and 49 who watches the NFL, is interested in who won, who lost, how far the pass went, how high the kick was. But he makes up a small part of the Olympic audience," said Ed Markey, a spokesman for NBC Sports, which will broadcast the Summer Games in Sydney in 2000. "Women make up a much bigger portion, and they're interested in, 'Who is this person? How did they get here? Why should I care?' The philosophy we've adopted is story telling."
In fact, it's not clear that story telling is always a girl thing. When NBC failed to show the U.S. women's soccer team in the gold medal round during the 1996 Summer Games, there were plenty of women who would have preferred more action and less story telling. And at the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona, NBC offered viewers a pay-per-view option that provided hour-after-uninterrupted-hour coverage of various events; it bombed miserably with men as well as women. Most viewers, accustomed to the tidy packaging of usual network broadcasts, could not stomach the monotonous coverage of qualifying heats. NBC lost nearly $100 million, and did not renew the venture four years later in Atlanta.
Network executives, with their jobs on the line, look at the ratings and stick to their formula. So they focus on the most popular sports, such as figure skating and skiing, and shy away from some of the more peculiar ones, such as the biathlon (sharpshooting on skis) and luge (feet-first sledding). Through their personality profiles, network producers are able to create heroes and villains, good guys and bad guys, ingredients necessary for any compelling drama.
In the 1994 Winter Games, CBS scored big with the Skating Saga of Tonya and Nancy. Tonya Harding, of course, was portrayed as trailer-park trash from Portland, Ore., who got mixed up in a plot to club the beautiful, New England-bred Nancy Kerrigan on the knee so she might have a chance to strike figure skating gold. It wasn't sports, it was pure soap opera. Viewership went through the roof.
Tonya and Nancy are gone from the Olympic scene, but there are plenty more potential leading women and men ready to take their spots. Prepare this year to see the event coverage interrupted so we can hear more about skater Nicole Bobek's arrest for breaking into a house even though the event happened years ago and Bobek was never convicted of anything. And you can can count on those features to fill in the air time between commercials. Check out the women's ice hockey team touring a Japanese temple!
As a former sportswriter, I have mixed feelings about the way the networks cover the Olympics. Certainly, television's relentless pursuit of bigger and bigger audiences has helped the Games grow into the mammoth international spectacle, and the hype does have its effect. The games do take on more excitement.
But in boiling the Games down to 15-minute features, the networks distort a basic truth about the Olympics and maybe even distract us from it: One of the greatest things about sports in general and the Olympics in particular is their ability to produce spontaneous moments of pure excitement, drama and greatness. In competition, heroes emerge simply through their actions, not the packaging of their life stories. Quite often, those heroes are ones we might not expect, and the way they triumph is far more dramatic than anything dreamed up by the producers of those soft-focus vignettes about Michelle Kwan's injured toe.
Surely the most memorable image from the 1996 Summer Games was of gymnast Kerry Strug: believing the team gold medal was on the line, charging down the runway, springing off the vault and sticking her landing, despite the obvious pain in her severely sprained ankle.Then, a shot of her coach, the bear-like Bela Karolyi, lifting her from the floor into his thick arms. The crowd going wild. And later, Strug insisting that she join her teammates in the awards ceremony hopping on one foot onto the medal stand.
Here we had true drama, and television at its finest, a reminder that ultimately all we really need to see are the glorious athletes in their element. To crib from the Bard, the playing's the thing. Unfortunately, in TV coverage of the Olympics, too often it isn't.
Metro reporter David Nakamura covered sports for four years for The Post
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