Production Philosophies: US vs. Canadian Olympic Coverage

I’ve been traveling the last two weeks, and obviously haven’t kept up with the blogging, alas. I celebrated a birthday on the trip, and my mother-in-law gave me an iTunes card whose design is remarkably similar to the classic logo of the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC):

iTunes card that resembles the CBC logo versus CBC logo

Which is just as well… actually, if I could get some Canadian iTunes cards, I could buy a bunch of great music that I can’t get from the US store (yes, I am a total tool of the CBC Radio 3 podcast and Shoutcast stream).

But speaking of Canada, we have the Summer Olympics coming up in a week, and having grown up in a border town (Detroit) that got Canadian TV, I can tell you how much better CBC’s Olympic coverage is than the American broadcasters. But don’t take it from me. Enjoy the quote from Wikipedia’s entry on the CBC which says that:

CBC’s Olympic coverage is also well-received, as it provides an alternative to NBC’s coverage, which, some have alleged, focuses too much on American athletes. CBC’s Olympic coverage is also carried live, regardless of broadcast time, compared to NBC’s tape delay.

We’ll hear the “NBC’s coverage is American biased” a lot over the next few weeks, largely because it’s absolutely true, and if you think it’s annoying to us Americans, feel bad for smaller countries that don’t have their own national broadcasters and get the NBC coverage instead (at least this was the case for the Atlanta games in 1996… maybe there’s a decent international feed now or something).

But getting back to the idea that NBC’s coverage is jingoistic, I think what I find annoying about it is that it’s really the symptom of a bigger issue, which is that American broadcasts of the Olympics are designed for viewers who don’t like sports.

This has been the operating philosophy of American Olympic broadcasts since even before NBC got the rights, back through CBS’ coverage of the Albertville, Lillehammer, and Nagano winter games in the 90’s. I don’t think the Olympics has actually been sport gratia sport since ABC’s yellow-blazered Jim McCay era in the early 80’s.

Don’t believe me? You probably won’t be able to see the CBC coverage, but let me try to typify it for you. Let’s say there’s an individual event with 20 or 30 athletes taking turns. CBC will show most or all of them taking their turn, one after the other. NBC will show one or two, then a human-interest package on one of the athletes, show their run, and then show two or three more… enough so you see the top-performing American and the gold medal winner compete (if neither of these two was the athlete featured in the package), but that’s it.

Or, let’s get the words from the producer’s mouth, specifically co-producer Nancy Beffa, as quoted in a DGA Monthly article on producing and directing the Olympics:

I don’t like sports, but I love human interest stories. They’re everywhere, but you have to look at a different angle, and you have to also know Olympic history and folklore.

And there you have it. The core production philosophy is that the viewers don’t like sports, so it’s just as well that the above-the-line staff doesn’t like sports either, so they’ll be in tune with the audience’s tastes. Which isn’t the sports. No, it’s about cut-away packages: Wow, people in this country eat strange food! Hey, road signs here are funny! Look, drunken sports fans at a bar! Here’s some old coot that charmed us, so we featured him in a package! This is what NBC will show, instead of the actual sporting event they spent $894 million in rights fees to acquire.

And, in purely economic terms, this production philosophy makes perfect sense. There is no way in hell you are going to find enough viewers in the US who actually enjoy track and field, fencing, judo, team handball, and the rest, to make back that kind of money in ad sales. Even if you assume the value of the Olympics is as a loss-leader to launch NBC’s fall schedule, it makes more sense to build it up as a family-friendly event and target the kind of taste-deprived bozo who might actually watch the new Knight Rider, rather than target genuine sports fans. I remind you: this is the network that re-launched American Gladiators as a prime-time program.

It’s a shame that we’re still stuck with the old broadcasting models, so that the fans who enjoy the games can’t get outside their national broadcaster and pick up an international feed, or a broadcast from a country that genuinely values and enjoys sports, like Canada. But the economic model that pays for the insanely-expensive Olympics doesn’t work like that. Perhaps in the future there might be some pay-per-view streaming option for the hardcore sports fan to purchase the broadcast they want, but we’re not there yet.

And we probably won’t get there anytime soon, considering that what NBC considers state of the art is to limit its net video streams to Vista only.

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