Sports vs. schmaltz

The ultimate combat sport of the modern Olympics is action battling features for TV time. Schlock, in retreat for a while, has rallied.

Published August 11, 2008 11:00PM (EDT)

I was going to write about how the dominant view of NBC's Olympics coverage, in the comments to this blog, in my e-mail, on the Web, even in conversations in real life, is that it's an orgy of America-centrism and Big Detroit Automaker Moments, maudlin features about athletes who are almost always American and absolutely always have overcome some Heartbreaking Event. An illness, an injury, a death in the family, a missing cat.

"Why," a letter writer asked typically, though before the games started, "do they show more, 'up close and personal' features than actual sporting events?" Good luck seeing any events not dominated by Americans, goes another popular thread.

I was going to say that that the gauzy features are still too much for my taste but not nearly as thick on the ground as they used to be, and that if you just step away from the NBC prime-time show, there are all sorts of sports, often with nary a Yank in sight, and the Big Detroit Moments are few and far between. Big Detroit narrator Jimmy Roberts, the Sultan of Syrup, is scarce on the hench networks.

Alas, I wrote that piece four years ago, during the Athens Olympics. Please go read it, and then I think I can take a tax deduction or something.

NBC made a lot of noise back then about a new approach to those up close-personal stories, saying the new model was to shorten them up. Rather than stopping the action for several minutes while our hero wandered around the homestead staring at sunsets under a thousand violins and the dulcet tones of the sachem of sap, the focus was on much shorter pieces.

A 30- or 45-second piece about, say, a swimmer, that could run while the athletes were adjusting their goggles before a race, would give viewers a little bit of information, a story-line to hang our attention on, without making us feel like we had tuned into a sporting event and a soap opera had broken out. Big improvement.

After all, how much do we need to know about the life story of this or that gymnast, swimmer, runner, archer, whatever? We just need a little something to grab onto. Ah, that's the one who's cat died. Got it.

NBC is still running a few of those, but there's been some schmaltz-creep. The longer features are oozing back in. At least it feels that way. Bob Costas might call me in six months and explain patiently that, no, actually, the average length of NBC's features went down 13 seconds from Athens to Turin and another six seconds in Beijing. And he would if it were true. But I'm betting he won't.

Still, more time on features than on sports? Obviously hyperbole, but I put a stopwatch to it. I timed Saturday's prime-time show to see how much time was devoted to action and how much to non-action. Or inaction. Features, news updates, in-studio interviews with freshly showered American medal-winners. I counted commercials as part of whatever went before them. So if a six-minute feature was followed by three minutes of ads, that counted as nine-minutes of non-sports.

The four-hour show came out to 3:04 of action, 56 minutes of everything else. NBC had news of that day's killing of an American in Beijing to deal with Saturday night, but it didn't spend all that much time on it. My sketchy notes show seven minutes of news updates, mostly about the attack and its aftermath, and that counts commercials.

It wouldn't surprise me terribly if that 3-1 ratio was pretty similar in 2004 and 2006, but it strikes me as too low. A half hour of non-sports in a four-hour program seems about right to me.

But again, everything that people are asking for is out there, it's just not on the prime-time show or the big network. CNBC, MSNBC, Telemundo, Oxygen and USA, along with dedicated HD channels, are churning away through the wee hours and the meat of the day with all manner of sports. I spent Monday watching volleyball and boxing, archery and team handball, water polo and field hockey, along with seven thousand replays of the men's 4-by-100 freestyle relay.

Beyond that and some other swimming, I didn't see a whole lot of Americans, and never caught a glimpse of Jimmy Roberts. The Olympics that the dominant view dreams of are out there. You just have to know where to look for them.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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