Saturday, February 11, 2006

Compare and Contrast - The Olympic Opening Ceremony

I am - quite proudly - an Olympics Wonk. I like 'em; I love 'em; Can't get enough of 'em! And as any North American Olympics Wonk worth their salarium (a Latin joke for Italia) knows, the coverage of the Olympics that NBC offers is nothing short of awful. Those in the know either come to Canada or a border area for the duration, get a Canadian satellite dish or find a sports bar which has a Canadian dish rather than watch the mess that NBC makes of the Olympic Games.

It's a matter of philosophy. CBC, and before them the private broadcaster CTV take the attitude that the Olympics are a live event and the technology exists to allow the Games to be broadcast live, therefore it makes sense to treat the event as a news story and present them live. NBC takes the attitude that - particularly for their broadcast network - the Olympics are a ratings bonanza and should be held over until prime time except on the weekends. Besides the affiliates probably wouldn't stand for the network taking over the time they save for news and syndicated court shows. As a ratings bonanza the feeling is that there's a need to focus on - and in all honesty promote - American athletes for the most part to the exclusion of all others. They seem to believe that Americans only want to see Americans and preferably Americans winning.

While I won't be blogging extensively about the Olympics - that isn't the purpose of this blog after all, and besides it might impinge on my ability to watch the Olympics - I do think that the way that the Opening Ceremonies were covered are in some ways illustrative of the differences in attitude towards covering the Games. So on Friday I subjected myself to both the CBC and the NBC coverage. There were similarities in the details but the similarities only served to illustrate the differences, if that makes sense.

The live CBC coverage started at Noon CST although the ceremonies themselves didn't begin for an hour after that. CBC spent that time familiarizing viewers with the area around Turin and the Olympic venues, as well as discussing Olympics related news - specifically the Gretzky betting story and the impact that might have on Canadian athletes (the Canadian Olympic Committee were saying that it would be no problem but the sports people indicated that athletes were saying it might) They also discussed the COC's "On The Podium" program, the objective of which was to use scientific training programs to get more Canadian athletes into contention before the 2010 games in Vancouver. The NBC taped coverage also had an hour of non-Ceremony material but it was focussed on three high profile American athletes and the performances of four American downhill skiers, three of them competing for two open positions on the US Team. The interviews with the three athletes seemed to be primarily designed to promote them as probable medalists. It was a recurring theme.

CBC's coverage of the Opening Ceremonies was hosted by CBC Sports anchor Brian Williams and Peter Mansbridge who is the anchor of The National, while NBC's coverage was led by Bob Costas with NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams as co-host. Much was made about the American Williams going to Turin rather than Katy Couric but I for one wasn't unhappy with the development; when I've bothered to watch the NBC coverage in the past, Couric has always seemed to be imitating a brook and babbling. Certainly that wasn't a problem with Williams. While the Canadian Williams and Mansbridge worked well together (they've been doing this since at least Seoul), at NBC it often seemed as if Costas was carrying the burden of commentary all by himself. The American Williams was probably at his most vocal during the entry of the athletes but often his commentary wasn't on topic about sports but dealt with whatever world or domestic crisis he could link the country to.

I want to deal with the content of the broadcast but the way that the networks dealt with content was largely predicated on the way they handled the entry of the nations. On CBC the mandate was clear; they would not interrupt the March of Nations with commercials and indeed decided to use an inset so that they could show the Canadian team marching around the stadium while also showing the teams that followed as they entered. As well, since the CBC was presenting the Opening Ceremonies live they weren't worried about length. The network rather optimistically scheduled the complete package for three hours (including the hour before the actual ceremonies) while what the actually got was closer to four hours total. NBC had scheduled the opening ceremonies for a seemingly more realistic four hours but it was a "hard" four hours - that is they couldn't go beyond that limit. If NBC had the same commercial load as the CBC it would be enough time, but of course they had the commercials during the March of the Nations that CBC didn't, and US networks are allowed to have more minutes of commercials per hour than Canadian networks which they used. The net result was a number of pretty brutal cuts to the ceremonies, most of them to the "artistic" portion of the program. A huge cut occurred after the entry of the athletes - there was between ten and fifteen minutes dropped immediately after the entry of the athletes with only the "tableau" representing Botticcelli's Birth Of Venus left in and another section representing the Italian artistic movement known as as Futurism. There were a number of other, smaller instances.

Having noted the number of cuts that NBC made to the Opening Ceremonies, there's still the question of how they were presented. Mercifully - and perhaps due to the absence of Couric - Costas and the American Williams didn't talk as much as NBC commentators have in the past. They tended to let the events speak for themselves, sometimes too much so although on occasion they did give more information than Mansbridge and the Canadian Williams did. And yet I felt more comfortable with the Canadian commentary team, perhaps because I wasn't expecting them to jump in with comments that I didn't need. Whatever it was the CBC commentary gave me the information that I needed in a relaxed but professional manner. Their silences even seemed more professional somehow.

Looking ahead, it's worth noting that CBC will be offering approximately eight and a half hours of live Olympics coverage every day, from 6:30 a.m. CST to 4 p.m. in addition to seven and a half hours of taped recaps between 6 and 11 p.m. and 12 and 2:30 a.m. By contrast NBC is offering three hours of week night prime time coverage (7 to 10 p.m.) and two and a half hours of late night coverage (Midnight to 2:30 a.m.), all on tape. This is in addition to whatever they have on their cable only networks, USA, CNBC and MSNBC (although only USA seems to be offering live Olympic coverage). It shouldn't be that hard to figure out what the preferred network for the Olympic Wonk is.

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