The Emperor's Old Clothes

We weren't a week into the Olympic Games when the media blob announced its verdict on the coverage: Nice job, NBC.

"NBC gets it right in Salt Lake," said USA Today in a headline that summed up the blob's consensus: "So far, so better," wrote the paper's Robert Bianco. "Having been roundly criticized after Sydney for its over-packaged, taped coverage that bled the Olympics of any excitement, NBC seems to be on the road to recovery in Salt Lake City."

New York Times television critic Caryn James put it a little differently, but her theme was blobbishly the same: "From NBC, the packaging is sleeker, the commentators less intrusive and the strategy of showing shorter and fewer profiles is a big relief. The coverage of the Olympics is as orchestrated as ever; it just flows with more style than it has before."

What's interesting about these pieces, and others in a similar vein, is that while ostensibly praising NBC, they also show how little we have come to expect from Olympics coverage. The blob is all of us, a rough expression of the collective cultural reaction to big media events. And judging from this week's readout, we are so accustomed to awful Olympics coverage that even the smallest signs of improvement feel miraculous. Like peasants kneeling before a wicked emperor, we thank NBC for throwing us a few crumbs, and acknowledging that we exist.

But should we be satisfied with crumbs? Is merely being "on the road to recovery," or winning a few new style points for a production that's "as orchestrated as ever," good enough? After all, we're talking about an event that's supposed to reflect civilization's noblest ideals, one that not only matters hugely to the public, but is arguably a public possession, in the same category as a speech from the Oval Office or a major congressional hearing.

Even as they welcomed NBC's latest take on the Olympics, both of the above pieces mentioned persistent flaws, particularly the time delays that NBC continues to impose, although with three separate channels (NBC itself, and its cable outlets MSBNC and CNBC), it could deliver much of the action live.

Here is USA Today's version: "Thanks to the Olympics placement on American soil, we're also seeing more events live—though 'live' for NBC is still a relative term. By the time NBC signed on Sunday at 3 p.m. ET, the men's downhill, the ski jumping and the Nordic combined events were already completed—and before the network went off the air, snowboarder Kelly Clark had won the first American gold medal. NBC, however, kept the news to itself."

And here is the Times': " 'Live' is a relative term here. In Sydney, Australia, the excruciating time difference couldn't be ignored; from Salt Lake City, the idea is to ignore the last few hours and let prime time define reality."

There's a reason for the delays. Big prime-time viewership means more money for NBC from advertisers, who pay according to audience size.

But that's NBC's problem, not ours, and it's no excuse for robbing the Games of their immediacy and excitement. On the merits alone, NBC's Olympics coverage is still terribly inadequate, and the reason is right in front of us: It's dishonest. There's dishonesty in the needless time delays. In the fake video fire that burns behind Bob Costas in his fake après-ski living room. And in the network's decision to make the Olympics be as much about NBC as about the Games themselves.

The Today show is broadcasting from the Olympics, with Katie and Matt in ski sweaters, sitting behind a bowl of enormous, possibly real, pine cones. The Tonight Show is now The Olympic Tonight Show. Ads for Watching Ellie, the new Julia Louis-Dreyfus sitcom, showing the star in hilarious Olympic situations, are so frequent they've started to meld with the real Games. Some viewers accept all this as hard reality. "With the financial stakes so high, NBC has to speak to an audience that approaches the Olympics as a televised pop-culture spectacle rather than a sports event that happens to be on TV," James writes.

But does it have to be this way? Rather than tinkering with its Olympics coverage just enough to placate the blob, what if NBC, or some other network, did something really radical? Imagine if the Olympics got the kind of coverage it deserves: live and totally unpackaged, with minimal hype and opportunism. Some argue that Americans would never go for this kind of bare unmediated coverage of a public event. But 52 million of us watched the last State of the Union address, which had neither soaring snowboarders nor leggy skaters.

Come to think of it, why not give the Olympics to the most unpackaged network of them all, the one that turns hypeless coverage of public events into a kind of art? C-SPAN does the Olympics! You can almost hear Brian Lamb interviewing Simon Ammann, the first ski-jump gold medalist: "You're from Switzerland. For viewers who might not know, tell us: What is Switzerland?"

C-SPAN might even be angling for the job, in a demure C-SPAN kind of way. Go to its Web site,, and you'll find a blinking link to a page called "C-SPAN By The Numbers," a list of statistics in the style of "Harper's Index." Here it's noted that in 2000-2001, the average weekly audience for NBC's (hmm, interesting network choice) West Wing was about 17 million viewers. The estimated number of people watching C-SPAN each week? It's 28.5 million. Watch your back, Peacock.