Gil LeBreton

February 16, 2014

NBC is driving us Olympics-crazy

Too much figure skating and too many commercials to entertain many viewers.

Figure skating. Thank-you-mom commercials. Johnny Weir’s outfits. More commercials. More figure skating.

Oh, I get it. To NBC, the Winter Olympics are a TV show, not just a sporting competition. They are a 17-day miniseries, to be edited, deleted, milked for drama and, as we were reminded last week, sometimes even scripted for your viewing enjoyment.

Forgive me. I realize I may be just another dog barking at the NBC moon on this. Ever since the network coined the term “plausibly live” to describe its Olympics coverage, U.S. viewers have had to play the wait-and-watch game. A Greek chorus of TV critics has already howled.

It’s been 30 years since I’ve watched an Olympics on TV. I’ve been blessed to attend 16 Olympic Games in person — nine summer, seven winter — and so I was mostly spared the uncomfortable viewing transition from ABC’s Jim McKay and his yellow blazer to Tim McCarver swinging and missing on CBS and then to Bob Costas, who brought smug gravitas to the NBC anchor chair.

I grew up watching McKay and Chris Schenkel anchor the Olympics, back when networks felt privileged to be televising the games, rather than thinking they owned them. My first in-home experience with an NBC-scripted Olympics, therefore, has been an eye-opening one.

It starts with the anchor desk. My memories of the ABC Winter Games coverage were of McKay, clad in his Dale of Norway sweater and sitting by a fire in what appeared to be an Innsbruck ski chalet. Even Costas, on the other hand, remarks that NBC’s studio set in Sochi resembles the icy Fortress of Solitude from Superman.

Whatever. On with the show, which usually has been figure skating. With the introduction of a team competition, three more days and nights of figure skating were added to the schedule in Sochi.

NBC seems determined to bring us every toe loop and triple axel. And I get that, too, because ratings have determined that female viewers drive the Winter Olympics evening audience.

But for the approximate 44 percent — according to one report by The Nielsen Company — of the primetime Olympics viewing audience who are male, the interest starts to wane like a ballgame with multiple rain delays.

Guys check schedules. They know when the puck drops or the first bobsled comes down the chute. They like the action, and they want to see it live — penalties, false starts, broken bones, everything.

NBC, for the most part, uses its vast resources and access well. Through their athlete profiles and games-related features, we get a look at the competitors and the host city that the printed word can only strive for.

But knowing it has a captive audience in the United States, NBC takes liberties.

Time differences are either ignored or blurred. Commercials are thrust in, like a football coach calling a timeout to freeze an opposing kicker.

And then there are stunts like the other day when NBC, knowing that Russian skater Evgeni Plushenko had withdrawn from the men’s singles competition 10 hours before, was still hyping his impending appearance on the network’s primetime show.

Poor hockey fans. The NHL shuts down its season, sends its brightest stars to the Olympics, and American fans have to get up at 6:30 a.m. to watch Team USA play.

But there I go, barking at the moon again.

NBC’s response to the Twitter generation and the non-ice-dancing-inclined is that everything is available online. Forget your 60-inch hi-def Samsung set, in other words, and watch it all on your 15-inch laptop — provided the guy down the street isn’t downloading from Netflix and hogging the neighborhood bandwidth.

I get it, though. The stories are all in there, somewhere, parceled throughout NBC’s hundreds of hours of “coverage.” All that, plus the Johnny Weir outfits.

I like it, but yet I’m annoyed daily by it. I have a feeling that I’m not alone.

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