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The Olympics: Random, But Highly Defined

It used to be so easy to knock the Olympic television coverage, because it was such an easy target. Not so much because it was much worse than today's coverage, but because there was so much less of it to watch. It was easy to focus our ire on NBC's prime time Olympics coverage.

But now, our rage is diluted by the vastness of the Athens Olympics coverage. Prime time on NBC is supplemented by a zillion more hours on Bravo, MSNBC, CNBC, Telemundo, the Food Network, Sci-Fi Channel, UPN, and NASA TV. Plus there's NBC's new high-definition coverage, on a channel that's tape-delayed nearly two days behind the actual events.

It's hard to even find where to begin. And that seems as good a place as any: for the first time in my memory, these Olympics seem utterly random. There's no center to these games, and I think the massive amount of coverage -- and how NBC has handled that coverage -- is the reason why. But who knows? Maybe that's okay.

It's been standard procedure to complain about NBC's policy of tape-delaying every event that anyone might care about, meaning that everyone who's got access to a Web browser can know the results of what they're supposed to be watching at night when they get to work in the morning. There are lots of reasons NBC does it, all of them economic. NBC wants everything to air in prime time (on the East Coast, which is why during the Sydney Olympics people on the West Coast had to wait more than a day to see the results of some events), because that's when people watch.

But if you've watched any of NBC's prime-time coverage, you've probably noticed that it's boring. The broadcasts have been stretched out to as much as four hours, and marquee events don't appear until after 11 p.m. Meanwhile, the events that they do show are often butchered, the best example being the road bicycle race, which was introduced as if it were "plausibly live," covered as if it were a live event... and yet we only saw the race's first and last 10 minutes.

Let's face it -- treating a prime time telecast from a far-off land as if it were happening live just doesn't work. So why not turn the prime time show into a reality-TV-inspired magazine show, featuring more highly edited packages that tell the stories of the day? (The bike race would've been much better if it had been edited together as a package, and not vivisectioned as a "live" event.) For the casual, non-sports-fan viewers NBC seems to be most interested in courting, wouldn't that approach to these events have more resonance?

Those casual sports fans aren't looking for results of sporting events on the Internet -- and they probably won't care if they catch a glimpse of the highlights on their local newscast. That want to know about the people and the personal dynamics that lead to the results of the competitions. They want to be told stories -- so NBC should tell those stories with every storytelling method in its arsenal.

Meanwhile, the network should broadcast everything live on cable, with repeats later in the day once the events have stopped. That said, the Athens cable broadcasts -- despite how scattered they were -- could be a lot of fun. Want to watch beach volleyball? Got a zillion hours of that. How about synchronized swimming? Yes, the lacquered ladies are swimming regularly on your screen.

But you know what? It doesn't matter. Because I have seen the future. Or to put it more accurately, rather than watching the present's Olympic telecast, I have been largely watching the one that's time-shifted from Mars, the NBC High-Definition channel.

I bought my high-definition TV after last season ended, and as a result I haven't had much to watch of a highly defined kind yet. But the past few weeks I've had eight hours of high-definition Olympic programming to choose from. Yes, it's mostly been swimming, diving, gymnastics, and track -- but the clarity of the picture has been stellar.

Even more amazing than the pictures has been the commentary -- not that the commentators NBC has assigned for the twelve people receiving the high-def signal are themselves anything to write home about. But they are blessedly free from the massaging and over-scripting that you get on the other NBC networks. High-def viewers got no sugary-sweet parade commentary from Bob Costas and Katie Couric during the opening ceremonies. Instead, we got to see the parade of athletes in remarkable clarity and only had to suffer through the much lower-energy stylings of Al Trautwig and Mary Carillo.

This won't last. In four years (and perhaps even in two, at the Winter Olympics), everything will be simulcast in HD, so we'll get to see the evaporating credibility of Costas in incredibly high resolution. That's good in some ways, but bad in others. I'll miss having a channel that's not under the watchful eye of the NBC image-makers. But it'll be nice to be able to watch Olympic action that hasn't been delayed from the previous Olympiad.


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