Thursday, February 18, 2010

From the Network That Fired Conan and Kept Jay

Anyone looking for examples of what’s wrong with contemporary television need only watch an evening of NBC’s Olympic coverage to be satisfied for a year. Assuming you can figure out what’s on.

Olympic program listings are always pot luck affairs. Schedules change due to weather; unexpected events may require more coverage. The advent of this whole Interwebs thing should give NBC an opportunity to keep potential viewers relatively well informed. Should. The web site’s program guide has been incorrect several times already, as, apparently, have been the schedules released to the cable and FiOS providers. I set the DVR to record the opening games of the American and Canadian men’s hockey teams the other day, right off my program guide, and came home to several hours of curling.

Even when the guide is right, it’s incomplete. Many listings just say, “XXI Winter Olympics – Sweden at Canada.” (Actually, only one said that. It’s an example.) Doesn’t say which sport. Could be hockey, could be curling. Could be men’s or women’s. Since the listings on screen sometimes disagree with the listings on the web site, and each has already been proven wrong on more than one non-weather-related occasion, it’s hard to know when things are happening.

It’s possible NBC doesn’t want you to record afternoon events because you’ll watch them in the evening instead of their big ticket commercials. Television as we know it exists to generate advertising revenue; programming is included only because the networks need something to entice you into watching their commercials. (Think about it: if NBC thought you’d watch nothing but commercials for three hours a night, do you really believe they’d bother with this Olympics nonsense?)

For a time, the networks allowed us to believe they viewed commercials as a necessary evil; they had to pay for the programming somehow. Now they don’t try to disguise the fact they only broadcast programming to get you to watch the commercials. Sports segments from Vancouver have been as short as two or three minutes. A couple of ski runs or speed skating races. A typical schedule looks like this: a four-and-a-half minute figure skating routine, followed by two or more minutes of commercials, followed by the skaters receiving their scores (a couple of minutes), followed by more commercials. Repeat till midnight.

Figure skating was chosen for the above example because if there’s any going on, that’s what you’ll see. A signature event of the Winter Olympics, akin to the 1500 meter run or 100 meter dash in the summer, is the men’s downhill. This year the downhill was postponed a few days due to bad weather. When it finally went off, it was the same day as figure skating. Six two-minute runs were shown in the course of forty minutes of commercials and features; basically the medal winners and other Americans. Figure skating filled a couple of hours, including skaters the announcers admitted were only there to gain experience. They had no chance to medal. Even to an untrained eye, it was easy to see they were the second team.

I’m sure NBC has research that shows women watch a lot of figure skating, and that keeps their ratings up. The supposition must be that men in the coveted 25-49 age group who are into competition more than aesthetics will put up with that to see some sliders or jumpers. Maybe it’s even accurate. All I know is the chats I have seen are unhappy with the coverage by about 4-1; this is the first time I can remember using the DVR to fast-forward through the programming as much as the commercials.

The allure of the Olympics is such not even NBC can ruin it completely. Watching the joy of Canada win its first gold medals on home soil was uplifting. Apolo Anton Ohno is an engaging personality with a load of talent in an entertaining sport. I’m not into snowboarding, but Shaun White is impossible not to watch. Lindsey Vonn would be America’s sweetheart if she were a skater. The hockey tournament will be riveting as the elimination games begin.

If only I knew when they’d be on.

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