Between coverage omissions, jarring event schedules, and a propaganda-like obsession with Team USA, NBC’s tenth Olympic broadcast isn’t likely to take home the gold.
Talk of sport and camaraderie aside, the Olympic Games are nothing if not political. Hitler famously used the 1936 Games to promote the grandeur of the Third Reich, and Cold War-era boycotts were employed by NATO and the Warsaw Pact alike. The Beijing Games in 2008 were met with a firestorm of controversy over host nation China’s atrocious human rights record and alleged misconduct during the events themselves. Hours into this year’s Games, things were already par for the course.
For reference, London was awarded this year’s Games in 2005. The city’s celebration was abruptly cut short, however, by a shocking terrorist bombing less than twenty-four hours after the announcement that left 52 dead and scores wounded. Commonly referred to as “7/7,” the bombing stunned Britain and fueled fears that an attack on the scale of 9/11 was only a matter of time. Thankfully, though the U.K. has been plagued by the occasional bout with radical Islam since, a larger threat has yet to materialize.
Flash-forward to the 2012 Opening Ceremonies, a spectacle celebrating culture and ability in spite of difficult economic times. In addition to a moment of silence, a five-minute choreographed presentation was performed midway through the ceremony in tribute to the victims of the 2005 bombing. Viewers in Britain and across the globe watched, listened, and perhaps cried—except in the United States, where NBC (which has held the American Olympic broadcast rights since 1988) aired an interview between Ryan Seacrest and swimmer Michael Phelps instead.
This decision was met with an understandable level of confusion from across the Atlantic, where many seemed unable to believe the reports from New York. Akram Khan, who choreographed the tribute presentation, said he was “shocked and horrified and would like to know on what grounds the American media” chose not to air it. The British weren’t alone; Americans, too, were upset and dismayed that such an emotional piece was cut from their broadcast. But surely NBC had a good reason for not airing it stateside.
Well, not quite. NBC spokesperson Greg Hughes explained that “our programming is tailored for our American audience.” As the Games air in America on delay due to the time difference between North America and Europe, the studio is able to cut and splice for the prime-time audience. The explanation did nothing for Khan, however, who could only ask, “Is it not accessible enough? Is it not commercial enough?”
His questions have been echoed by others wondering if this merely confirms the age-old American stereotype of caring only for maximum monetization. Why air a five-minute presentation which will mean little or nothing to most Americans when an interview with one of TV’s most well-known personalities and the nation’s 2008 Olympic hero promises millions in ad revenue? It might sound common-sense in this day and age, but America may well stand alone in its commercial approach to the Games.
In the U.K., the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is airing the entire event live and largely unedited. Many other countries follow suit, hosting live feeds on their public broadcasting stations. As usually, though, Olympic rights in the United States are sold (to the tune of $1.18 billion this year) at a price PBS isn’t likely to match. Americans who wish to see the Games live, unedited, and without commentary are forced to use methods eerily similar to those employed by Chinese and Middle Eastern dissidents; routing their internet through foreign servers to fake a foreign IP address. This allows them to access BBC’s or other public station’s coverage as if they were living in that country.
NBC has chosen to present the Olympics to the American people in a way that is, quite simply, shameful. The station has styled itself “The Olympic Home of Team USA” and it shows; as typified by the Seacrest/Phelps debacle, their coverage has taken a disturbing turn toward propaganda. Even without the interview, the opening ceremonies were marred by constant commentary on the odds and histories of different American athletes. Even the Parade of Nations devolved into a ranking of how other nations might compare to Team USA. Event footage cuts from one arena to another, holding just long enough to witness the performance of an American before switching to the next. Even when they’ve lost, lengthy interviews take precedence over live footage.
Unfortunately, NBC has decided that Americans are incapable of handling an Olympic Games designed for the world at-large. A tribute presentation to victims of terrorism seems fitting for American audiences familiar with such tragedies, but apparently international terrorism isn’t so relatable. It should be noted here that the 2002 Salt Lake City Games featured several reminders of the previous year’s September 11 attacks, which Britain and other nations broadcast in their entirety. And recognize another country’s triumph when there’s an American bronze to celebrate? Forget about it.
It’s nothing short of a national embarrassment that an event meant to highlight international unity and the amazing potential of the human mind, body, and spirit can suffer such disgrace. Instead of reminding Americans that they are part of a larger picture, NBC seems content to do everything possible to insulate audiences from the world. If they had it their way, they may well replace establishing shots of London with Los Angeles or Chicago. It’s no surprise that the hashtag #NBCfail began trending on Twitter soon after the opening ceremonies. What’s truly a shame is that it may well trend again come Sochi 2014 or beyond; NBC locked up the broadcast rights to the Games through 2020 earlier this year.