Tuesday, 18 February 2014


In America, Olympic broadcasting faces a slightly different problem of pitching winter sport than the BBC's, because the Olympic format of building soap-opera 'up close and personal' storylines for every event is a tradition more than half a century old. NBC also has the advantage/problem of doing much of the games on tape delay. This allows them to hold a good story as long as they'd like, up to the very end of their prime-time broadcast, but it also tempts them into playing with the narrative.

In 1992 NBC had come up with the phrase 'plausibly live' to describe their tape delayed coverage from Barcelona, and fair enough, if you keep away from the news and the net you can watch as live. But in Atlanta in 1996 they famously redid their gymnastics commentary to re-order the competitors, thus increasing the tension. They provided new commentary, which I watched them record in the now-empty Georgia Dome (I was in charge of the basketball coverage in the other half of the Dome). I also talked to one of the commentators, Elfie Schlegel, as she and John Tesh walked in to do their voice-over. I wrote about this for the Herald-Tribune after the games, and NBC's Dick Ebersol wrote an indignant letter of protest denying what was obvious to anyone who watched the show. Apart from the order, you could hear the basketball horn go off. Ebersol claimed disingenuously that the horn was being tested, which was true; what he didn't say was that we were not allowed to test it until after the gymnastics was finished! Our half of the Dome was required to be both dark and silent throughout actual gymnastics competition.

Anyway, this time NBC gave into temptation on the men's figure skating. With no American left in the running, the story was Russian veteran Evgeni Plushenko, but he unfortunately had tweaked an injury during warmups, and withdrawn from the event. But when, many hours later, NBC went on air in prime time, they not only teased Plushenko's performance throughout the night, but when it came to the moment they actually feigned surprise at his withdrawal. Obviously it's not like re-editing events' it's just a cynical exercise in manipulating the audience to sit through more commercials; eminently cynical. Though probably not as cynical as the bits that were cut from the Opening Ceremony speeches, in particular IOC President Thomas Bach's call for the games to be held 'with tolerance and without discrimination for any reason,' NBC probably feared tolerance and non-discrimination might have offended much of their audience.

But the biggest controversy reflected NBC's overweaning determination to cast this sporting event into the template of human-interest. Bode Miller, who's now 36 and nearing the end of a magnificient, if sometimes controversial career, had just taken a bronze in the Super Giant Slalom, salvaging a medal after a disappointing downhill. He had told NBC, in an interview with news anchor Tom Brokaw, that he was racing at this Olympics for his brother Chalone, a snowboarder, who had died last year, aged 29. During the race, NBC even had Miller's wife miked up, and after the finish he was interviewed by Christin Cooper (left), a former US skier whom I'd met a few times in the 80s.

Miller's answer to Cooper's first question said he had a 'lot of emotion riding on it', and she then followed up with a question that was classic action news at 8 stick the microphone into the crying victim's face and ask: 'Bode, you’re showing so much emotion down here, what’s going through your mind?' I don't think Christin, who was friendly, articulate and smart as a skier, was wrong to ask that question—she commented on his emotion. But the question itself is far too lax—what's going through your mind?—to necessarily get a good answer. Bode's answer was general, so Cooper had to press on, trying to get him to mention his brother. And as tears began to appear, Miller produced an amazing response: he didn't know if the emotion was for his brother or for himself.

Done, brilliant, he's given you gold, he's crying, now move on, or out. Instead, Cooper started fishing for an angelic moment—Miller had been looking into the sky before his run. She was asking him to become part of a daytime TV movie. Miller was unable to answer, but the camera zoomed in on him, and his tears, holding him in extreme close up as if trying to focus on each individual droplet. They then followed Miller as he went off to be by himself, and Dan Hicks picked up and tried to explain the situation. Hicks did his best not to pander, but having built up a soap-opera scenario, there was no way NBC were going to desert the soap opera money shot: tears are the currency of voyeurism, the ultimate proof of 'real' emotion on the screen, and they need to be seen up extremely up close and personal.

I'm not criticising Christin Cooper for what was Oprah-esque overkill—and neither did Miller, who defended her afterwards and spoke of being caught up in the emotion of the moment. NBC, of course, immediately used that as a justification, saying that they supported 'the line of questioning' (no mention of sticking with his reaction) and claiming Miller had been 'supportive of ...the overall interview', which he wasn't.

The producer in the truck could have left the scene gracefully, dissolved to Miller's run perhaps, or simply moved on to the next story.  Cooper got a human reaction from Miller, but no one was content with that. There had to be more, so the audience could get their vicarious pleasure. It was great TV for an instant, and it became embarrassing for a lot longer.

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