Tuesday night, I turned on NBC's Olympics coverage, because I am, above all else, a patriot, and if America hates something, I should try to hate it, too. Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can complain about for your country.
NBC is having some public-relations issues in these Olympics, or as some might put it: "DIE, EVIL NBC, DIE!" As far as I can tell, there are two main complaints.
COMPLAINT No. 1: Everything is on tape-delay, and the live-streaming on the Internet does not always work like it should, and in 2012, we're all checking Twitter and Facebook and assorted news sites, and so we all know what Michael Phelps does as soon as he does it, but NBC won't show us the actual race until prime time. NBC's Olympics coverage is brought to you by Jim Tressel: They know who won, they just don't know who to tell. I mean, Lolo Jones thinks they're waiting too long.
(Editor's note: Sports Illustrated and NBC recently partnered to produce a monthly hour-long television show.)
COMPLAINT No. 2: NBC is not taking these sports seriously enough. As a general rule, networks can show they aren't taking something seriously by hiring Ryan Seacrest. But also, we get the human-interest stuff, and the "GO USA!" stuff, and interviews at the wrong times and that embarrassing moment when a promo showed Missy Franklin with her gold medal on the Today Show before NBC showed Franklin winning that gold medal.
Well, I will not rip NBC here. First of all, Complaint No. 1 is not really fair anymore -- the network IS trying to stream all the events live online, after all. I don't know how many people are really having trouble streaming the events. I'm sure there are some. No technology is perfect, and new technology always has glitches. But NBC is trying to give you live coverage of everything, if you want it. That is admirable.
But mostly, I want you to ask yourself a question. Answer honestly, OK? Here we go.
If you ran NBC, would you radically change the coverage?
Now, give me an honest answer.
I said an HONEST answer.
As a sports fan, you might say you would make radical changes. You would focus more on winners and less on Americans, more on action and less on emotion. I understand that. I think that way sometimes myself.
But I did not ask what you would do as a sports fan. I mean, as a sports fan you probably don't like the Yankees spending close to $200 million on their payroll, but if you ran the Yankees, you would probably spend $200 million on your payroll. As a sports fan you would probably like cheaper ticket prices and shorter commercial breaks, but if you ran sports leagues, would you really lower the ticket prices and shorten the commercial breaks?
I asked what you would do if you ran NBC. Think this through with me. Your job is to make a profit. Once you dole out $47.3 kazillion dollars for these Olympics, and then discover that the International Olympic Committee has added a 20 percent "convenience charge," bringing the total to $56.8 kazillion dollars, you really need to maximize your prime time television rating. Otherwise you'll get fired from your job running NBC.
Would you radically change NBC's approach?
Remember: The Olympics have pulled in insane TV ratings for many years. They are an immensely popular phenomenon, so big that we take for granted that the Olympics are a huge deal. I don't think people fully realize how remarkable the Olympics' popularity is. We all know that they are really popular. But think about how crazy it is that, of all the entertainment options in the world, THIS is one of the most popular.
For two weeks, we would rather watch swimming and track than basketball. We'd rather watch a 17-year-old girl we never heard of two weeks ago than Roger Federer.
When I turned on the coverage Tuesday night, Bob Costas was hosting, and I know Costas has his critics (we all have our critics) but to me he is one of the very best broadcasters of my lifetime, and not just in sports. Anyway, Costas gave some hints of what was to come -- swimming, the amazing U.S. women's gymnastics team, etc. Then he introduced the night's first prime time (tape-delayed) event:
Women's synchronized 10-meter platform diving.
Women's synchronized 10-meter platform diving.
Who do you have on your women's synchronized 10-meter platform diving fantasy team? Trivia fun: Who won gold at the 1996 Atlanta Games in this event? Trivia answer: Nobody. The event began in 2000 in Sydney.
Yes, the first half-hour of NBC's coverage was devoted to a sport that was not even an Olympic event 16 years ago. I also heard the broadcasters utter the following:
1. "There is nothing better than doing a release, and then connecting it to another one." I have no idea what this means. I don't even know what sport was on at the time. I think it was gymnastics.
2. "Just fearless! I mean, total lack of any kind of fear." Thanks for clearing that up.
3. "The Canadians are known for doing this dive well ... Their spin in the air, fabulous!" (I wonder: Do all Canadians do this dive well, or just the Olympians? Is it taught in schools? A source of national pride?)
4. "Michael Phelps will race for history tonight."
Phelps had, of course, already raced for history, and he was surely asleep when Costas interviewed him in a "plausibly live" setting, though I've seen enough Phelps interviews to know it doesn't really matter if he is awake or asleep. The interview is basically the same.
I also saw a teaser that read: Men's Diving Synchronized Springboard. Think about it, America. THESE are the events we claim we can't wait to see.
This is what I mean about the Olympics. Their appeal is hard to define. We don't watch these people the rest of the year. We can say that it's the allure of the countries competing against each other, but when was the last time you rushed home to watch the gymnastics world championships, or the swimming world championships or the track world championships?
I think we love the Olympics partly because of the country-vs.-country competition, partly because the whole world participates, partly because of the pageantry, partly because they are exotic, partly because we know this is the dream for everybody involved, partly because we don't watch these sports much and don't burn out on them, and partly because they only occur once every four years and therefore seem special.
We love them madly. I love them myself. But if I ran NBC, I'd be terrified of changing anything. I'd be terrified that all of America would wake up and decide this was all silly and we didn't need to watch. I'd worry that if I changed the coverage, I'd attract 500,000 more hardcore sports fans and lose 5 million casual Olympics fans.
When I tuned in Tuesday night, I knew most of the results already. I knew the U.S. women had won the gymnastics gold medal. But I still watched as Aly Raisman stuck her final landing and the Americans had sealed the victory and they huddled together and cried. I'm sure I would have enjoyed it more if I didn't know they had won. But I got chills anyway.