OpEd Columns


Admit it: You Watched Games to See Buff Americans in HD (Indianapolis Star 8/23/08)

How did NBC do it? How did they score such a ratings bonanza with the Beijing Olympics? Let’s face it. When it comes to maximizing viewership, the last two weeks have been like Christmas morning for the National Broadcasting Company.

Somewhere atop broadcast mountain, network execs from ABC/ESPN, Fox, and CBS must be staring down at 30 Rock, puzzling and puzzling, like the Grinch staring down at Whoville on Christmas morning.

"How could it be so? It came with out ribbons! It came without tags! It came without packages, boxes or bags!"

These inflated Olympic ratings came despite howling bloggers pounding NBC for tape delaying many events. Despite news purists slamming the peacock for being soft on the Chinese government. Despite a wave of criticism for flag waving to the extreme.

Exactly. And Christmas still came. Because NBC gave Americans what they want under their Olympic tree.

Human emotion in high definition. Look good and feel good. Tell us a good story about Americans winning and we’ll keep watching, even if it happened twelve hours ago.

Forget the ills of the Chinese. Ignore those “other” countries. Show us the Americans.

This isn’t journalism. It’s entertainment. The age of hard journalism during the Olympics went to heaven with Jim McKay. So show us Michael Phelps. Winning and winning and winning.

It’s to NBC’s credit that they constructed a very entertaining made-for-US Olympics, even if it didn’t really happen in my American living room just as it did in Beijing.

The fact is, reality TV is much more interesting than reality period. And the NBC Olympics were two weeks of carefully orchestrated reality TV, much of it scheduled to land in your lap right after dinner.

And we ate it up.

The better than ever ratings were the result of NBC’s stable of expert storytellers, expert videographers, and expert editors. Highly skilled at taking an otherwise ratings challenged sporting event (how much swimming have you watched in the past four years?) and turning it into a thrilling Olympic narrative. A drama-drawn-out plot packaged with proper three-act structure.

Establish the main characters. Determine their goal. Watch them succeed. Despite over 10,000 athletes participating from more than 200 countries, inevitably, NBC’s storylines were soaked with stars and stripes.

And that’s what we want. Somebody rooting for US and with us.

Give announcers Dan Hicks and Rowdy Gaines some credit. Their unmitigated enthusiasm for the American swimmers turned a relay race between four shaved hunks from France and four ripped twenty-somethings from the United States into the greatest swim sprint in history. A wet Chariots of Fire.


Did I mention the guys looked great in the pool?

Sexy. And in glorious high definition.  For the first time ever, the Summer Olympics were broadcast in HD. And if you don’t think that boosted viewership, you haven’t watched women’s beach volleyball.

If you’re like me, you bought a brand new big screen HDTV within the past four years. Wow! Red, white, and blue never looked better.

With that picture, you didn’t mind waiting through one billion dollars worth of warm and fuzzy, hug-the-world-and-think-of-our-product commercials, right in the middle of a breathtaking USA-Belgium beach volleyball battle.

One set of women’s beach volleyball, littered with over a dozen commercials. Point. Point. Commercial. Commercial. Commercial.

But we kept watching. Because it was women’s beach volleyball in high def!

Bikinis, breasts, biceps, beaches. At times, NBC’s Olympics looked a lot like CBS’ Survivor. Torches too. It’s not an accident that the most attractive athletes, and the sexiest sports played in prime time.

Swimming, track and field, beach volleyball.

The king of weightlifting at the 1972 Munich Games was Vasily Alekseyev from Russia. A grossly overweight super heavyweight mammoth of the sport. And a TV star during ABC’s coverage thirty-six years ago.

Fat chance in 2008 you saw a blubbery behemoth like Alekseyev during prime time on NBC.  Because the American Olympic TV audience (traditionally more upscale and more female than other sporting events) doesn’t want ugly winners from “other” countries in ugly sports.

Give us gymnastics. The antithesis of weightlifting. Short and sweet. Diminutive and emotional. Perfect for prime time. And when an American wins the gold, like cute Nastia Liukin, it’s like Christmas in August.

Ted Mandell teaches in the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre at the University of Notre Dame.
Copyright 2008 Ted Mandell