I love the Summer Olympics. All that competitive effort and skill, grace and beauty compacted into two weeks. It is a great time to watch sports television. Unless you are watching commercial TV. And especially if you are watching commercial TV in the USA where there is not only a five-hour delay between London’s and my East Coast time zones that softens the hard and charged impact of watching something in the shared real time as the event: the main problem is the network coverage itself. For US commercial television, sports events are ideal fillers for advertising. A typical NFL game lasts for close to three hours, with more than 45 minutes devoted to selling beer, fast food, cars and trucks. One of the pair of commentators assigned to every game spends as much time touting the network’s schedule as they do calling the game. In the universe of US commercial television, coverage time expands to fill the commercial opportunities available. The last three minutes of an NBA game can take up to 20 minutes in your time, as every break in play provides another opportunity to sell you something. Soccer is less popular amongst broadcast networks because the constant and uninterrupted play, unlike the staccato cadence of US football, basketball and baseball, provides fewer natural breaks for advertising.
For NBC, then, the Olympics is less sporting event, more giant advertising opportunity, an opportunity not to be passed up.
The time delay with the London Olympics gives the network even more time to package even more adverts into their coverage, to spin out any single event with a constant and mind-numbing, repetitive barrage of adverts and the promotion of upcoming shows. Their sheer number blunts your senses for truly enjoying sports action. The sporting triumphs are brief interludes between extended commercial pablum.
And then there are the very curious programming decisions. Entire NBC-affiliated cable channels are devoted to basketball and soccer, hardly unique as televised sport. On the main network’s prime time, from 8 pm to 11 pm, fare such as women’s beach volleyball gets incessant coverage. We see endless hours of two US women in skimpy bikinis, even all of their preliminary games. Even gold medaling US athletes are given short shrift while women ‘s beach volleyball is in play. A medal performance in the women’s 8 in rowing or in shooting is lucky to get a 30-second nod, between four minutes of GE product placement. The constant ogling of women’s beach volleyball is disconcerting and makes me feel as if I wandered into a soft porn viewing from long ago. And like most pornography ultimately boring: in this case only two players with little opportunity for sustained rallies. The programming decision looks as if it was devised by a groping voyeur more interested in seeing half-naked bodies than athleticisms at their finest. It is the age-old alignment of creepy voyeurism with selling products.
Watching prime time coverage of the Olympics in the USA is a bleak experience. Actual sporting events are like tiny crumbs spread across a vast gray ocean of banal, repetitive advertising. Even the smartness of the clever adverts soon fades with constant repetition. In any hour of watching there must be at least 30 minutes of breaks. One evening after the 8.00 pm start, I clocked the first commercial break at 8.03.
The Olympics is a great event for the television viewer. In much of the world it probably is. But not in the US, especially for those more TV-dependent than Internet savvy.
Watching NBC prime time television coverage is not a gold medal experience.