Reality or “Reality”?: Should NBC’s Olympics Coverage Be More Straightforward?

Is it too much to expect NBC's Olympics coverage to be less packaged? The answer may depend on whether you expect to be entertained or informed

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Matt Dunham / AP

Russian gymnasts and team officials react as teammate Kseniia Afanaseva falls while performing on the floor during the Artistic Gymnastics women's team final at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, July 31, 2012.

The Games of the XXX Olympiad — the 2012 London Olympics, to you and me — have had, like all Olympics, their fair share of winners and losers. However, few, it seems, have lost so often and so consistently in the eyes of the American public as NBC Universal, whose coverage of the games has been criticized for everything from time delayed coverage and monolithic evening scheduling to inane commentary and myopic focus on specific America-centric sports at the cost of the wider international flavor of the games. At least they weren’t editing the actual coverage for dramatic effect, though, because that would’ve been… Oh, wait. As Deadline Hollywood reported last week,

NBC coverage edited out Afanasyeva’s dramatic fall from its Tuesday night broadcast, which in and of itself is unthinkable since she’s the reigning world champion for floor exercises. Her mistake devastated her Russian teammates, who were visibly shocked and upset to everyone but NBC viewers. Claims are that the network didn’t show it to create fake suspense around Team USA which was performing after the Russians and already ahead in the previous events.

Ksenia Afanasyeva’s fall during the floor exercise portion of the women’s gymnastics all-around competition last week had been broadcast during the live transmission of the event, but was cut from the evening primetime broadcast “in the interest of time,” according to NBC Sports Group chairman Mark Lazarus. As the New York Times pointed out, that was a slightly misleading excuse, considering that the evening broadcast spent almost as much time — 1 minute and 36 seconds — showing the U.S. team warming up as the entire length — 1 minute and 38 seconds — of Afanasyeva’s complete routine. Instead, the cynics claimed, the edit had come from an attempt to increase viewer uncertainty and tension over whether or not the U.S. team would beat the Russians in the event. As you might expect, condemnation flew at NBC Universal from all sides, with one refrain being repeated across social media as if it were a truism: “This isn’t reality television, this is the Olympics.”

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We can pick apart a few things from that statement, but the two that seem most problematic are the implicit agreement that it’s “okay” for reality television to create some pre-written, fake narrative through judicious editing, and the idea that the Olympics are somehow “different” from that type of programming. On the former, it appears that the unreality of reality television is enough of a part of the genre to be a central ingredient of its DNA. Wikipedia — always the Internet’s most reliable source of information — defines reality television as “frequently portray[ing] a modified and highly influenced form of day-to-day life, at times utilizing sensationalism to attract audience viewers and increase advertising revenue,” going on to explain its creation as a process in which “participants are often placed in exotic locations or abnormal situations, and are often persuaded to act in specific scripted ways by off-screen ‘story editors’ or ‘segment television producers’, with the portrayal of events and speech manipulated and contrived to create an illusion of reality through direction and post-production editing techniques.” That definitely sounds like the episodes of Top Chef and The Real World I’ve shamefully watched when better, worthier television was waiting on my TiVo, but it’s worth noting that the distortion of actual reality is actually a central part of the definition—suggesting that it’s not just that we’re all “okay” with reality TV being edited to be, well, unreality, it’s that we expect from the genre.

Taking that idea a step further, what if such manipulation is not just an expectation, but the very thing that appeals to us about reality television? In her introduction to the 2004 collection of academic and critical essays Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture, Associate Professor of Media, Culture and Communication at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, Susan Murray wrote that “although reality TV whets our desire for the authentic, much of our engagement with such texts paradoxically hinges on our awareness that what we are watching is constructed and contains ‘fictional’ elements.” That’s an idea echoed by John Corner, who wrote in the book Big Brother International: Formats, Critics and Publics that particular popular reality show “signals its contrivance so openly and with such theatrical zest that mistaking it for a documentary would take some serious, perverse effort on the part of the viewer.” And yet, there has to be something other than artifice to draw us to reality TV, otherwise we’d surely be watching scripted programming instead. For a reality show to truly catch the audience’s attention, there has to be what cultural critic Winnie Salmon describes spectacularly as “the ‘money shot’, the moment of real, pure, raw and unscripted spontaneous emotion.”

Perhaps that is one of the core selling points of reality television: that it offers a version of “real life” that we can project ourselves into and compare ourselves to, but one that also offers the comfort and security of narrative television in which everything comes to some form of closure after 30 minutes (60, tops) with ad breaks and a catchy soundtrack to boot. Consider it Real Life Plus: two great tastes that taste great together. Given the success of such shows as The Hills and Jersey Shore, of course, there’s another — somewhat more depressing — lure for reality television: the genre as televisual version of a freakshow, in which audiences are allowed to gawk at and judge others in a “safe” context that invites such behavior, and plays up any and all qualities and circumstances that would assist the audience’s feelings of scorn/amusement/superiority. Murray, again from Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture, uses that idea as a way of differentiating reality television from other factual programming: “This access to the real is presented in the name of dramatic uncertainty, voyeurism and popular pleasure,” she writes, “and it is for this reason that reality TV is unlike news, documentaries and other sanctioned information formats whose truth claims are explicitly tied to the residual goals and understandings of the classic public service tradition.”

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The lines between those different goals — education versus entertainment — are becoming increasingly blurry in recent years, however. Consider, for example, the BBC’s critically acclaimed natural history documentary series Planet Earth, which was filled with CGI-composited shots and material filmed in studios but not identified as such in the program itself, all in the name of more clearly and concisely getting the appropriate information across to the viewer. No one would consider that show “reality television” in the traditional sense, but it’s not exactly straight reportage either; instead, it’s an example of what John Corner identified in his 2004 essay “Performing The Real” as “documentary as distraction”; non-fiction programming that is constructed with an aim of pleasing the viewer as much as informing them.

Enter NBC’s Olympics coverage. By its very nature, it’s in a very strange place: American primetime is either five or eight hours behind the end of the day for the games themselves thanks to the time difference, and in today’s hyper-connected world, those who really want to know the facts of what happened will have had hours to find out through social media, live coverage online or on U.S. television. Why, then, should NBC’s evening broadcast feel compelled to offer a “just the facts” version of events? It is, after all, a highlights show; surely the idea of selectively choosing what to show viewers is implicit in its very concept. Adding footage of the athletes from before the events — whether in home videos of themselves as children, training footage or interviews as they narrate their own stories and mindset leading up to the games — takes the idea of shaping a particular narrative further than objective reportage would, yes, but it makes the act of viewing the games a richer experience for the majority of viewers. It turns what would be one thing — a demonstration of prowess from some of the most physically skilled people on the planet — into something else: a story in which to become emotionally engaged.

Does that make NBC’s evening coverage less “news-y”? Well, yes, but so does the context in which it’s being transmitted, hours after the fact and to an audience who likely already knows what has happened (or perhaps is less interested in the Olympics as “sporting event” and more as “exciting spectacle,” and is therefore more ready for easily digestible narrative). In that context, I’d argue, the packaging and, yes, editing that NBC creates isn’t actually that bad. Outside of the Afanasyeva fall, what is really being created is a stripped-down version of events, reducing what actually happened to a core conflict between leading rivals and color commentary without actually changing the central, important story of “what happened.” It is very clearly “documentary as distraction,” with entertainment at least as important as education, if not moreso. It’s an approach that seems to be working for the audience, if nothing else, and for those looking for something purely informative, there are resources available elsewhere, after all. Whether or not this treatment of the games is the start of some slippery slope, “cheapening” of an Olympic ideal is up to you, but it’s worth remembering that, while NBC isn’t giving us the NBC Olympic Nightly News any more, it’s also not delivering The Real Housewives of The Olympic Village, either.

They’re saving that one for 2016.

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