NBC probably doesn’t look forward to this week. After posting boffo ratings for its coverage, there is evidence that this has been very much related to the eighth wonder that is Michael Phelps. Phelps last night won his eighth gold medal at the Beijing Olympics, as the US team defeated the Australians in the 400 medley relay.
NBC has certainly milked each and every Phelps win, and it’s worth following his every move as he made it to the Water Cube, iPod in his ears, or putting a microphone in front of him to ask him (ugh) what “was going through his head”, etc., as he picked up yet another medal. NBC has stayed very close to Phelps’s Mom and his older sisters too, even dispatching analyst Cris Collinsworth to sit next to her at the swim events and dedicating a camera and microphone to record Mama Phelps’s every utterance. She has become almost the super media star that her son has, posing for photos with mega luminaries such as Kobe Bryant, Jason Kidd and Lebron James, all NBA stars and members of the US Olympic basketball team. Phelpsmania is everywhere.
Now with the swim events over, NBC’s ratings are almost certain to drop. As we here in the US of A cope with Phelps phever and deal with withdrawal, here is a list of suggestions we’d submit to NBC to improve its coverage in this, the second and final week of the Beijing games:
1. Don’t assume we care only about the US
Hey, we get it. Team USA. Michael Phelps swimmer god. Dara Torres, the 41-year-old housewife who won the silver medal. Nastia Liukin, the gymnast whose father just missed getting the gold back in 1988 in Seoul. There are all sorts of US stories out there and we have been pelted with profiles and interviews at every turn. Take yesterday: during the 100-meter race, we saw Tyson Gay turn in a pretty abysmal performance, as he failed to qualify for the final. There was the camera up in his face essentially asking him, “Why couldn’t you do better?”, and in the meantime the Jamaicans cleaned our clocks masterfully, but no NBC cameras were covering them. Or when NBC cameras followed the women’s marathon for almost two hours yesterday, and winner Constantina Tomescu-Dita of Romania. She was tremendous. She was stellar. But why do we have to follow a limping Paula Radcliffe, not an American but a Briton, who was the world record holder? What happened to the Romanian woman?. Sure the US naturally cares about US athletes, but you’d think they would toss a camera or send a chirpy reporter about other countries’ efforts, and not just when they beat us. We’re at an international event, so let’s be a bit more global about the coverage of other athletes?
2. Don’t treat Beijing as if it’s an exotic, unknown place
Why does NBC feel the need to explain and overexplain? It all started with the opening ceremony and all the maps they put up to help us locate Malawi or Turks and Caicos (Huh? Who?) Bob Costas has, thankfully, been a bit more restrained than before in his coverage, but he still makes us feel as though this were some kind of strange, awkward land and culture. The endless “human interest” stories would almost make you think that China is full of savages who eat fried scorpions or goat heads all day long, but there are some nice people there too. It’s as if you’ve come back from a trip to an exotic land and you say “the people were special”. Why wouldn’t they be? Sending fat Al Roker to try the fried treats with mock horror and squeamish looks is supposed to be funny and cute. What a crazy county! So why don’t they send his Chinese counterpart to one of our down-home state fairs right now. Yeehaw! They‘re serving up fried Coke and fried twinkies. Americans –what a wacky place!
3. Please restrain Meredith Viera from making a fool of herself
America’s #1 gusher of emotion each and every morning on “Today” probably should cool it. We understand that “Today” has to recap the previous evening’s events and they are the premier show that showcases the medal winners, who also happen to be the Americans. But could Meredith just stay in her chair and tone it down a notch? Sure, she has always been emotional and will cry at the drop of a hat. But it’s as if her incessant question, “What was going on in your head?” tends to produce a virtual emotional waterworks that usually ends with a mawkish hug of the athlete or some flustered remark. Special mention also must go to her (or NBC’s) decision to try out the balance beam, the (lowered) uneven bars, and the trampoline with a nervous Shawn Williams, US gymnast, looking on to make sure the 54-year old did not break her neck but instead make an ass of herself.
4. Thank you for restraining Ann Curry
The entire “Today” show crew is there, practically, save for an expectant Natalie Morales back home to read the news. Ann Curry, who is usually hopped up on speed, racing through her news reading or pouncing on others during rapid-fire interviews, has been pleasantly restrained to the point of catatonic here by comparison. Maybe it’s the jet lag, but Curry has taken a much more back seat approach to her work here. She won’t usually do the miserable “meet and greet” of “Today” show fans with all their signs from back home (“Wisconsin loves Michael Phelps!). She usually leaves this thankless task to jolly Al Roker. All she does is show up in a long pashmina scarf and unfortunate light yellow flip flops (!), smile, introduce a segment here and there. Perhaps she wants to go home. In any case, NBC: thanks.
5. Please put socks on Matt Lauer
Surely if we could get proper footwear on Ann Curry we could get some proper hosiery for Matt Lauer. There’s just something about his studied, tanned ankle emanating from his crisp, creased linen slacks and Bruno Magli leather slip-ons. He seems so determined to show off his legs when he is sitting there in his director’s chair, crossed legged, darting off questions and looking intent just as he is about to interrupt his guests. Sorry, I just can’t see Ted Koppel or Tom Brokaw pulling this off, or even wanting to.
6. Please remind Mary Carillo what her true talents are
Mary Carillo is an excellent analyst behind the camera. As a former tennis pro, she has distinguished herself for years as a tennis analyst. With Dick Enberg and John McEnroe, she is part of the best tennis commentator teams in sports, whether it be Wimbledon or the French Open. She also does some very solid work on Bryant Gumbel’s REAL Sports magazine show on HBO. In fact, she brought in an impressive profile of US track star (and flag bearer) Lopez Lomong just recently. So why did NBC feel the need to send her all around China to do a report on exotic Chinese foods? I was almost waiting for a laugh track because one thing Carillo does not do well is deadpan humor or off-the-cuff ad-libs. If she can stay behind the camera with Bob Costas, fine. But it isn’t necessary to have her do the puff pieces that should best be left to pushy dimwits like Billy Bush or Maria Menounos of “Access Hollywood”. The NBC-produced show is there in Beijing too.
7. Don’t feel the need to package everything so much
Despite the ever-present “Live” label on screen for much of the Olympic event coverage, this is actually a misnomer for those of us on the West Coast. Beijing is exactly 12 hours ahead of New York, so when it’s 7 am there for the “Today” show, Matt, Meredith and gang are actually saying “Good Evening” at 7 pm. The Michael Phelps Show last week has been taking place at 10 am Beijing time, but on the East Coast it’s 10 pm –but also here on the West Coast at 10 pm, a full three-hours delay. NBC is so intent on covering the prestige events that it has left precious little to chance. If it decrees that Phelps will be “coming up in 34 minutes”, as it said in an on-line tease, that gives you plenty of time to get prepared and get your TiVo ready. (Speaking of, it’s been a thrill to use the stop-live-TV feature on my TiVo, and not just the slo-mo, during these Olympics.) My qualm is this: it would not hurt to allow for a little less planning and once in a while let a little spontaneity take over.
8. Remind Bela Karolyi that it is not the 1980s and he is not the US coach
So NBC has this guy on as guest commentator and he has an impressive list of gymnasts he has groomed to gold medals, including plucky Mary Lou Retton (1984). His wife, Marta, is the coach now. So why then does he feel he has to hector at other team’s gymnasts by yelling at the TV monitor NBC has in the studio? He does this even with the US team, as when Alicia-with-the-thick neck fell on her butt as she jumped on the balance beam. Karolyi got into it a few times on camera about how the China may or may not have entered women that were under 16, the legal age for competing. Besides accusing the women of being “half people”, Karolyi then simply attributing this misdoing to something “Socialists states” like China do. Wonder if he, the former star coach for Ceausescu’s Romanian team knows a little something about this. Or, perhaps he can judge the efforts of these turtles instead:
9. Coverage of Beach Volleyball and Softball should be severely minimized.
Good God Almighty. Watching the players smash balls in a sandbox is pretty brutal. Or listening as the commentators as they fill or kill time. Ditto having to endure the softball games. Fortunately, this will be the last time the sport is officially recognized.
10. Bring back little Yang Peiyi for the closing ceremony
Yang Peiyi is the cute 7-year-old whose crooked teeth and lack of ponytails convinced high Chinese officials to drop her from singing live at the opening ceremony. Instead they brought in, Ashlee Simpson-style, cuter and with better teeth, Lin Miaoke in person, but piped in Yang Peiyi’s singing voice. First, it’s shocking that a country that put on such manmade and artificial technical wizardry in that ceremony would resort to such Milli Vanilli tactics. A country doing lip-synching at such an august event? Tacky. Also, how did Chinese officials let this sensitive information get out? I thought this of all countries would do everything it can to seal every tiny secret, lest it look bad in the world press. Petitions to bring back the unfairly treated Peiyi have circulated online. I say it’s high time she be given her time to sing, normal teeth and all.