Mark Danner

The Lost Olympics

Few of our predilections seem more distinctly modern than the compulsion to name "our era" and thereby claim it.

Few of our predilections seem more distinctly modern than the compulsion to name “our era” and thereby claim it. Last month, gazing upon the vast concoction of sports, commercials, and entertainment that NBC presented to them as the XXIV Olympic Games, Americans saw the Information Age give way to the Age of “Content”—and they found themselves decidedly displeased.

Critics, almost universally, denounced the Olympic broadcasts. Sports fans, in letters columns and on talk shows, excoriated them. And viewers, increasingly, refused to view them, leaving NBC with ratings scarcely two thirds those of the 1996 Atlanta games. Criticism concentrated on NBC’s intrusive production, which led, as one viewer wrote bitterly to the Los Angeles Times, to “an almost complete lack of sports coverage.” “Packaged and overproduced” as well as “after-the-fact,” according to The Washington Post, NBC’s Olympics were larded with “overwritten, overproduced hokum, orchestrated with elevator music and photographed through lenses smeared with schmaltz” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch), producing a “lethal mix: features so melodramatic they are unintentionally comic, and a style so choppy it attenuates suspense instead of building it, so slick it is nearly impossible to tell the commercials from the so-called reporting” (The New York Times). “In its relentless search for high drama,” wrote the Times critic, “NBC has stumbled into high camp.” [1]

Kitsch (“marked especially by sentimentalism, sensationalism and slickness”) might be more accurate, the more so because the word’s root—kitschen: “to smear (as if with mud)”—seems so accurately to describe NBC’s narrative method: the smearing together of elements that viewers expect to be separate. Track star Michael Johnson, in slow motion, accompanied by a portentous musical score, charged into the broadcast’s opening “promo.” He returned a little while later, reenacting his Atlanta triumphs in an “up-close-and-personal” feature (complete with more heroically scored slow-motion striding). He materialized again, this time “live, on tape” in his 400-meter final, to run to victory—and kept right on running, directly onto an enormous cell-phone keypad in a Samsung commercial, where he burbled into his cell, “Hey, coach! We did it!”

Viewers would endure this scene several times an evening, even as Michael Johnson took his place in the NBC broadcast booth as the network’s on-air commentator for the 200-meter finals. “Michael Johnson,” one of the Sydney Olympics’ major attractions, had been transmuted from athlete into apparition, then displayed promiscuously across the “productions'” many-faceted world, from promotion to feature to performance to commercial, leaving him everywhere and nowhere, and relegating the forty-three seconds of his victorious race to a foregone conclusion, an excuse—a tiny sliver of reality balancing a great inflated balloon of hype.

Television, as Paul Klein of ABC once defined it, is “the business of selling audiences to advertisers.” As the networks, under pressure from cable, have had increasing trouble attracting audiences (the network share having declined from more than nine in ten viewers a quarter-century ago to fewer than half today), “big event” programming has grown in importance. Long before Survivor and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? the great sporting championships were the prizes of television: the Super Bowl, the World Series, and, above all, the Olympics. Not only could these be expected to draw the vast audience that is becoming increasingly difficult to assemble; but, if the programs were carefully and cleverly “produced”—produced, that is, not simply as a sporting contest but as an “event” not to be missed—they might draw an audience well stocked not only with male sports fans (highly attractive to purveyors of beer, trucks, cars, and other “big ticket” items), but with women as well (attractive to purveyors of a great deal else). Such rare audiences can be sold to advertisers for an enormous amount of money.

To acquire the exclusive rights to broadcast the Sydney games in America, NBC paid the International Olympic Committee $705 million. The network then sent its advertising sales-people to corporate America’s “media buyers” and offered to sell them a prospective audience of more than eighteen million households (an 18.1 “share”), at the rate of $600,000, on average, for each thirty seconds. And a long list of the world’s most prestigious multinational corporations—Anheuser-Busch, AT&T, Coca-Cola, General Motors, IBM, McDonald’s, Kodak, Nike, and John Hancock, among others—eager to buy the promised “eyeballs,” fell into line, some of them paying as much as $65 million. (Many of these companies also became “global sponsors” of the games, paying the International Olympic Committee $55 million for the right to use the Olympics to sell their product—and helping the Committee to amass an astonishing $1.9 billion in revenue.)

By the time Americans began to turn their attention to Sydney, NBC had collected $900 million from advertisers, in return for which it had promised to transform the “rights” it had bought—to two weeks of pageants, processions, races, and meets—into huge American audiences. Now, like carvers sharpening their chisels before a hunk of wood, NBC’s army of writers, technicians, cameramen, and, of course, producers, with the help of an estimated $100 million, turned to the task of “production.” They were not “covering the XXIV Olympiad” but “producing” it, and at the start they had before them nothing but a great quivering hunk of “content.”

“Content,” in this contemporary usage, bespeaks a certain attitude toward all those supposedly separate things—video, music, writing of all kinds—among which it pointedly refuses to distinguish; it is an attitude, above all, of mastery. Content is material to be acquired, acted upon; images, sounds, writing are there to be subjugated, used, controlled. Out of the vastly diverse content of Sydney, Australia, NBC’s producers needed to construct a story, a narrative, complete with characters, themes, and subplots designed to attract the broadest possible audience, including those—mainly women—who they hoped would watch because of the “stars,” the “drama,” the “thrill of the event.”

As they had done at the Atlanta games, which (despite some criticism) had drawn a vast audience and scored a huge financial success, the producers preselected certain American stars—Michael Johnson and his “shoes of gold,” Marion Jones and her “drive for five” gold medals—and assembled soft-focus background pieces emphasizing the personal struggles of the athletes. Building on “marquee” competitions like diving, gymnastics, and track and field, and concentrating on American athletes, they carefully packaged each evening’s telecasts. For Sydney, these broadcasts would be constructed entirely of tape segments: features, promotions, interviews, and, of course, the competitions themselves, all of which would have taken place at least sixteen hours before. Though it would have been possible to broadcast many events, including some very popular ones, live, NBC decided against it. The content would be carefully constructed, assembled, controlled.

Running through the many complaints about NBC’s Sydney Olympics—that programs were “overproduced” and “overedited,” that they were distastefully nationalistic in their focus on American competitors and solipsistic in their insistence on ignoring when events actually happened, that they were both choppy in their constant cutting and seamless in their melding together of commercials and competitions and “features”—was a single issue, that of control. “Packaging” a race that had occurred sixteen hours before—of which the viewers, with access not only to the Internet but to newspapers and other television sports news, already knew the results—the producers insisted, in effect, that it was happening now. Broadcasting an event like the decathlon, say, in which an Estonian won, the producers stubbornly maintained that the American, who finished third, was the true star. Excerpting a single high jump here, a single javelin throw there, ignoring the rhythm of the events themselves, the producers worked relentlessly to force viewers’ attention onto those they had already designated, and the sponsors had already preselected, as the true stars.

Sporting competitions are tiny stories, driven, like most stories, by suspense; a sporting tournament like the Olympics is a great assemblage of narratives, small and large, the life-breath of which are doubt, risk, uncertainty, and, at last, the moment of catharsis. Only after the climax do we return to the tonal key. A viewer of NBC’s Olympics, however, was subjected to a blizzard of narratives, sometimes hundreds, every hour; but most of these—and, most important, the ones that offered closure—were either promotions, features, or commercials.

What was striking about the Olympics was not only that there were “too many commercials”—though in fact NBC’s “network commercial load” did not greatly exceed that of a normal prime-time show—but that every part of the broadcast seemed to become part of a commercial. This was not only a matter of the constant hype, which, in the case of the most heavily promoted stars, often became unendurable. (“This is the time to savor and appreciate Michael [Johnson] as you would a living work of art, a magnificent statue…golden shoes flashing, a runner for the ages!”) Nor was it only the dizzying speed with which athletes transformed themselves into corporate pitchmen. (American women soccer players, after kicking the ball around the Olympic playing field, popped up in a commercial kicking lettuce and watermelons around a grocery store; Stacy Dragila, after winning the women’s pole vault, soared over the bar a few seconds later in a credit card commercial in which VISA “congratulated” her.)

More than anything, it was the broadcast’s stuttering, jarring pace that seemed to struggle against the narratives of the races and matches themselves. The effect was that of one commercial after another, strung together like beads on a string. A typical sixty minutes of Olympic time, drawn from the evening of Wednesday, September 20, breaks down thus [2] :

Min./Sec. Percentage
Total time: 60:00 (100)
Commercials (7-8 breaks) 18:10 (30)
In-studio banter 7:00 (12)
Features (8) 6:30 11
Local News 1:00 2
Sports 27:20 45

What stands out is not simply what isn’t there—much sports competition—but what is: a rhythm built of tiny segments, most of them no longer than thirty seconds. Not only do the eighteen minutes of commercial time make up at least thirty-two “little narratives,” most of them having Olympic themes and many boasting the very athletes appearing in the games, but the number of commercial breaks mean that the “programming” itself usually lasts no more than six minutes—and those sections are further subdivided by the promotions, the in-studio banter, and the seven or eight features, many of which appear indistinguishable from the advertisements themselves: athletes, shot in slow motion, with quick cuts, alternating black-and-white and color, all of it overlaid with portentous music. As a result the viewer saw, on average, no more than three or four minutes of continuous sports programming. What’s more, while the commercials stayed precisely the same—compact narratives, leading to completion, often involving sports—the contests remained naggingly open, and NBC, the manipulating voice of authority, relentlessly “teased” these precious wisps of suspenseful plot line across scores of commercial breaks, until the most important and most anticipated events were finally shown to irritated viewers—who were well aware that the NBC producers could show these taped segments whenever they chose—only after eleven o’clock

Writing about morning talk shows, Renata Adler once remarked that television should be thought of not as a species of drama or literature but “more as a kind of appliance.” NBC fed the Olympic Games into its great grinder, sprinkled in a large helping of commercials, seasoned with features and promotions and lively chatter, and out of this concoction extruded for its viewers a two-week stream of tiny bits of “content.” It had done much the same in Atlanta and had been rewarded with critical acclaim and financial success. But it had failed to notice that in the years since 1996 the world had changed.

On American soil American triumphalism had seemed endurable; in Sydney it came to seem increasingly embarrassing. In the first games on US territory after the end of the cold war, victories over the Chinese and the Russians could still be portrayed as “American” victories; in Sydney, references to the “Iron Curtain” and to the “formidable Chinese” came to seem increasingly archaic and, in imputing simple-minded nationalism to viewers, almost offensive. In “real-time” Atlanta, the suspense was real, not manufactured, helping to give the contests themselves the interest and power to surmount the “soft-focus” feature stories; in Sydney, NBC’s insistence on creating its own solipsistic world, stubbornly ignoring viewers’ greatly increased access to other information, gave the producers a looming and grasping intrusiveness that came to seem increasingly antique. NBC had become Big Brother, intent on controlling where viewers looked, what they saw, whom they applauded. (It seemed appropriate that in the thousands of words expended during NBC’s broadcasts, the acknowledged corruption of the International Olympic Committee, and the scandals that have surrounded it in recent years, went largely unmentioned; after all, NBChad contributed nearly a third of the Committee’s $1.9 billion treasury.

The ubiquitous, unavoidable presence of America’s major multinationals, affixing, in commercial after commercial, their corporate slogans and images to athletes and to competitions—and penetrating the events themselves with features like the “IBMReport,” the “GM Moment,” and the “Sun America NBC Sports Desk”—made of the Olympics a spectacle of globalization in its most overbearing, Americanized aspect. If the Information Age, to its prophets, evokes opportunity, entrepreneurship, free access to information, the Olympics seemed a crass spectacle, with world-straddling corporate dinosaurs controlling what is seen and what is heard and doing it in ponderous slow motion, all the while hiding in plain sight behind a fixed and patronizing smile.



[1]See David Bauder, “NBC’s Coverage No Medal Winner with Nation’s TV Critics,” Associated Press, September 22, 2000; and Caryn James, “Sydney 2000: High Camp and the Games’ Cookie,” The New York Times, September 27, 2000.

[2] These numbers represent an average drawn from three hours’ viewing. See The Ledger (Lakeland, Florida), September 23, 2000, p. A12.