I told everyone I knew who cares even the slightest about sports or my hometown of Toledo that it was happening at 2:00 pm on Tuesday, August 7. It was the men’s high jump final, and Toledoan Erik Kynard, an alumni of my junior high and who spent his freshman year at the high school where I teach, was in the Olympic high jump final.
I had been telling people for the last three years that when this day came, Erik would be one of the last half-dozen jumpers still competing in the Olympic final. I was watching at NBCOlympics.com, I had a score sheet set up and kept the chart, and was live-tweeting and Facebooking the competition as it happened.
Toledo has had Olympians before, including gold-medal boxer named Skeeter McClure (a former student of my grandmother’s who went out of his way to introduce her to his friend, Cassius Clay), but it had been a generation since one was a real medal threat in a high-profile sport. Local media has long known how good Erik already was and how good he could be and kept him in the news. The city was plugged in on this competition and lots were watching online, and many people told me that the webstream made it so easy to follow the competition.
I got a jolt of adrenaline when Erik was the first over 2.33 meters. The weather was cold and windy and had been interfering with other athletes but not Erik–you’d better get used to it if you plan on doing high school track in Toledo–and as more and more athletes missed, it became obvious that Erik was in prime position to win an unexpected medal. A few more misses, and it was down to him and Ivan Ukhov for the gold.
I immediately contacted my sister-in-law, as the regulars at the sports bar she owns and operates are mostly graduates of Rogers High School, Erik’s alma mater. I said she needed to organize a watch party, and she sent the word out through her social media advertising.
So we all went. People were pumped. We watched. And we waited. And we waited. Finally, a small amount of high jump competition was shown and the place exploded in cheers for Erik’s serious face, goofy socks, and stern conversations with the high jump bar.
And then NBC went back to gymnastics, and we waited and waited and waited some more. I’m not a late-night kind of guy so I finally gave up and went home. The next day I was told that the remainder of the competition was shown at at 11:55pm and occupied 37 seconds of air time.
Our collective mood was joy at the success of one of our own but was deflated by irritation and annoyance. I know we were not alone, that millions upon millions of American viewers felt similarly mistreated and put upon by the most failure-prone network of the last two decades.
Erik will be on The Late Show with David Letterman tomorrow night, and I’d hazard a guess that his air time there will three to four times as long as the air time for the entire Olympic high jump competition. Four days later, NBC gave nearly four hours of live television coverage to the men’s 50 kilometer race walk–that’s right, the least interesting competition of the Olympic Games got more air time than the high jump, and by a factor of more than 100. These two points illustrate how horribly NBC mistreated not only its audience but itself, by lowering the value of the most expensive property it owns.
I’m not here to rant about NBC’s general ineptitude in showing the Olympics. There are plenty of others who have already written about how NBC simultaneously managed to get near-record numbers of Americans to watch the Games yet get them pissed off at the same time. No, I’m here to talk about how NBC in particular has screwed up its coverage of track and field and how it has screwed up the sport.
Finally an alternative
In response to an Ato Boldon tweet of a news story pumping up NBC’s massive viewership, a professional sprinter responded with “that’s because we had no other choice”. In other words, just because lots of people watched the content NBC had to offer doesn’t mean they liked the way it was presented. (And, I might add, just because they were big doesn’t mean they couldn’t have been bigger had NBC operated differently.)
I should start by saying that 2012 is literally the first time I’ve ever had to depend on NBC for coverage of the Summer Olympics. I have always lived close enough to Canada to be able to watch CBC’s coverage on its Windsor affiliate. They never tape-delay anything nor over-produce it, and commercial breaks are far fewer and shorter than on NBC’s coverage. They presume you have at least half a brain and treat you accordingly. Unfortunately, privately-owned CTV won the rights for this quadrennium and none of their affiliates are available in Toledo. So I was stuck with NBC.
Still, I had an alternative to network television, as NBC streamed the whole shebang. I have no idea how many people watched online, as NBC hasn’t been forthcoming with that number, but it was probably much bigger than anticipated given the types of streaming problems widely reported in the early days of the Games.
We track fans have used the internet to watch the so-called “world feed” of international track competitions for years, and we know how good they are and how bad NBC is. Now many non-track fans have been exposed to the same thing through NBCOlympics.com and I can’t tell you how many people have said to me that the webstream was so good and the TV coverage is so bad–and now they realize how bad it’s always been.
One sent an e-mail:
I thought by and large their coverage of team sports on channels like NBCSports and MSNBC — mainly soccer and basketball…– was great…They were using the visual feeds from the Olympic broadcasters, so there was little they could screw up that way, and because the producers “get” team sports and the announcers had some “cachet” (particularly with soccer and basketball) they were covered like typical games and were spared the heavy-handed treatment of the primetime coverage.
As for track and field, thank god for the online streaming coverage — I watched almost all of it this way, and it was refreshing. Of course, they were just picking up raw feeds… but this was exactly what made it so great — the graphics were top-notch and informative, and the with the lack of announcers it was like watching a sports version of how C-SPAN covers events: just set up the camera and let the event be the star of the show without meddlesome framing from idiot producers and what the Brits call “presenters.” (There was also a track feed with really good British announcers, but I tended to stay away from it because it was more prone to freezing up, and because without natural breaks in the action — they would switch to field events between race on the track — the online ads were more likely to disrupt action at inopportune moments.)
This is just one voice but representative of many.
NBC is killing us
Many local NBC affiliates put together some video packages of their own to run during the lead-in to prime time. Here in Toledo, WNWO taped sessions with University of Toledo head coach Kevin Hadsell, and at one point the sports anchor asked him why track and field isn’t more popular in non-Olympic years. Kevin responded by blaming USATF, everyone’s favorite punching bag. I do think they bear some responsibility, but I think the worst offender is NBC.
NBC manages to take a sport that is quite compelling and make it boring. There are many problems with NBC’s general handling of the Olympics, but the worst thing in how they handle track and field is that the producers apparently view an evening session at the Olympic Stadium as a half-dozen separate mini-events rather than one cohesive whole. Thus they’re quite happy to cut it into tiny pieces and spread it all around the night’s coverage, something they would never dream of doing with a basketball game or even a water polo match.
Another way of summing this up is in an exchange from John Madden’s Hey Wait a Minute, I wrote a Book. When he showed up for his first TV broadcast in 1979, the CBS suits said something to him about having a great show that night. He replied that it’s not a damn show, it’s a game, and they better treat it that way. NBC producers sees a track meet as a show, not a bona fide competition. (In fairness, you could say the same thing about the Olympics in general.)
Why is NBC’s Olympic coverage killing track? Because what they do is the template for what everyone else does. It’s dull. Dull. Dull. My God it’s dull, it’s so desperately dull. Individual race coverage can be good, but as a whole it misses the boat.
What we all know, but NBC producers do not (or don’t care to acknowledge), is that a track meet is a three-ring circus. There is always something going on, and there should never be dead time between running events. Another metaphor is that while each individual race might be a brick, the field events are the mortar to fill in between and hold it together into one unit.
Actually, I think NBC has a fairly good set of announcers, but producers and directors do not allow them to do their best work. Ato Boldon shines and is the best I’ve ever heard, but NBC producers are so overly infatuated with sprints and hurdles that everyone else is hamstrung.
Lewis Johnson is given the “sideline reporter” job and while he’s good at it, they’re wasting the talents he has to offer in calling middle distance races. When he’s been allowed to do it, he’s quite good. Craig Masback is not exactly electrifying but he knows his stuff when it comes to distance races as well.
The man who is most screwed over in using his talents is Dwight Stones. Why on earth they don’t keep him in the booth and give him a Telestrator is totally beyond me. This isn’t 1985 anymore, and that kind of technology isn’t even a financial drop in NBC’s Olympic broadcast bucket. He should be allowed to be the field events’ Ron Jaworski, the man who shows us the nuts and bolts of how things happen (or not happen, as the case may be).
(Further on the topic of Stones, why must he recite standings in field events rather than us being able to see them on screen? Why do announcers have to tell us splits or the number of laps remaining? The screen-corner graphical stat summary has been in existence for eighteen years and yet NBC hasn’t been able to use it for the most-watched show they have in any four-year period? It’s almost like NBC suits have a personal vendetta against track and field.)
But if there’s one announcer with no redeeming qualities for track and field, it’s Tom Hammond. He is, as my e-mailer said, “so clueless that it would be funny if you weren’t screaming in frustration”. While he can tell you who is leading a distance race at any particular time, he “has no concept of race tactics or when who’s leading is important and when it isn’t… and it’s obvious he doesn’t get track because his end-of-race calls are identical to how he calls horse races.” An NBC Olympic track and field drinking game I proposed included taking a chug every time he says “[insert name of athlete or relay team] is off to a good start!”–which is every single damn race regardless of whether they actually are or not. He knows nothing and cares not. There’s an apocryphal story floating around that he once publicly said he finds track boring, and whether it’s true or not doesn’t really matter because the masses find it so believable.
NBC executives keep around a horrible announcer and don’t let most of the others do their best work for one simple reason: they just don’t care. Rather than spend some effort building fan bases for the so-called “Olympic” sports, they throw gobs of money at the Big Event, the Olympics, and then tear their hair out just trying to break even on the deal. Meanwhile, ABC/ESPN has managed to do what once seemed impossible, which is to build a U.S. fan base for soccer, and they make good money on the World Cup. ESPN hired away Ian Darke from Britain–considered possibly the best soccer announcer in the English language–and we’re stuck with Tom “they’re off to a good start” Hammond. Idiots.
Where do we go from here?
The are two thing we in track and field can take from the recent Olympics as hopeful. One is that large numbers of people were exposed to the Olympic Broadcasting Service’s video feeds via NBCOlympics.com and learned that track and field can be done well. The second is that while, as my e-mailer said, “NBC doesn’t give a shit about what people think as long as their ratings are decent”, its current television model is doomed in the long term due to the pressures of the internet.
If there is to be movement away from NBC’s atrocious model of televising track meets and towards a more interesting and exciting one, NBC itself won’t do it. Nor will they be swayed by complaints from fans. The only way is for a formal group to strongly and consistently lobby for better coverage, from NBC and from others.
USA Track and Field would seem to be the logical organization to do that. Deposed CEO Doug Logan actually attempted to do something about TV coverage, as Larry Rawson was dumped from USATF broadcasts early in his tenure, and he spoke about the need to work with television partners to look at European broadcasts and learn about what could be done better. Whether he was unable to do those things because he didn’t have the requisite skills to make them happen or because he was canned before he had the time to make a difference is immaterial; he understood that the quality of television coverage was an important part of the sport and his organization. No one else seems to get that.
The other solution for track fans appears to be that all of us just pack up and move to England. France or Germany might be better if you know the languages.
Team USA won 29 medals, one of its best outings since World War II, at the top of their competitive ability. NBC became less popular than Congress.