I should probably explain, briefly, what I’m doing on this blog: I’m going to be writing a column for Sports on Earth that will essentially be a consumerist one: I like to think of it, to use a fancy journalism term that normal people couldn’t care less about, as an ombudsman of the planet. I’m going to be writing about how people consume sports, how media — and I mean all media, from Chris Berman to anonymous Twitter handles, because today, they’re essentially all part of the same experience — functions, what fans love about the sports media experience, and what they hate about it. I consider this something of a public advocate position, albeit far less altruistic and far more sophomoric. But more on that in a few weeks …
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I’m just going to be upfront with you from the get-go: I don’t really care about the Olympics that much. I admire the Olympics, the athletes themselves who train (who treat their bodies, honestly, in a downright brutal fashion) for years just for that 10-minute span or so every four years when everyone on earth is staring at them. I’m in awe of that. But I don’t necessarily enjoy watching it — at least, not as much as I enjoy watching other sports.
Why is that? I think it’s because the Olympics, as an event, aren’t sports, at least not in the way die-hard sports fans have become accustomed to consuming them over the last 10 years, essentially the Internet age. I don’t think the Olympics are aimed at sports fans. You know how regular drinkers refer to New Year’s Eve as “amateur night,” or how computer nerds mock their parents who can’t figure out their iPhones? I think that’s how hardcore sports fans — the sort of die-hards whose social calendars revolve around the sports schedule, the loyalist sorts who make up the backbone of the American sports experience — see the Olympics. They’re sports for people who are only kinda into sports.
I think you can tell this by how the Olympics handle time differences.
This year, the Olympic Games are being held in London, or, as most American sports fans know it: that one city where they play a neutral-field NFL game every year. London is five hours ahead of New York — the only time zone that television programmers care about — which makes it essentially impossible to fit any live programming into NBC’s prime-time window between 8 p.m. and midnight. The IOC wants to make NBC happy, but not enough to schedule gymnastics finals and swimming time trials at 1 a.m. local time. Which means that by the time NBC begins broadcasting its signature, prime-time programming — the telecasts that Bob Costas hosts in studio, the telecasts that everyone remembers from every Olympics — the live events will have been over for hours.
Now, you’ll be able to watch all these events live online, or even on CNBC or MSNBC or whatever other channel NBC owns these days. (I’m pretty sure it owns Syfy, bringing us one step closer to watching a Supergator compete against Michael Phelps.) But unless you work at home, and probably even if you do, I bet you won’t do that.
Every Olympiad, some highfalutin, futurist, whizbang, intellectual media “critic” claims that this — this — is the year that NBC won’t be able to get away with tape-delaying events, that we’re a wired culture now, that people consume too large a portion of their media diet from the Web, that the strategy of post-packaging Olympic programming is a relic, like how they used to show the NBA Finals games hours after they were over. But every Olympiad, it’s back to business as usual, because the way network execs think we consume the Olympics isn’t the same as the way we consume other sports. We don’t watch the Olympics the way we watch the NFL; we watch the Olympics the way we watch “Project Runway.”
I don’t say that with derision. (I love “Project Runway.”) I just think that the way we watch the Olympics is similar to how we watch reality shows. They are easily packaged, escapist entertainment that introduce us to characters — who exist in large part for the specific purpose of the cameras watching them — whom we have not met before, partaking in activities that we do not understand and have not thought much about before. We obsess over them as if they are our friends, particularly if they’re American, and we invest our emotional capital in their stories, their successes and their failures. For two or three weeks, we care so much. And then we do not think about them again.
Remember how much you cared about Michael Phelps four years ago? How you watched all his races (live, by the way), screamed at the television and were moved by his brilliance? Yeah, that was great, wasn’t it? When’s the next time you even so much as thought about competitive swimming? (As Woody Allen put it: “Swimming isn’t a sport. Swimming is something you do so you don’t drown.”) We haven’t given Phelps a second thought in the last four years because we don’t really care about swimming. We care about programming. We care about Phelps like we care about Christian Siriano, who won “Project Runway’s” fourth season. I was deeply invested in Phelps the same way I was invested in Siriano’s designs. And then the season ended and I never thought about him again. It’s reality television. It’s programming.
This is why, deep down, we don’t really mind watching recorded events on NBC prime-time, and why watching the Olympics is so different than watching “sports,” in the way we define them in America. I remember, during the 2008 Olympics, discussing with a friend in media a “controversy” at the time: whether The New York Times was right to send out email news alerts after major Olympic events ended, even if they wouldn’t be shown on NBC until later that night. To me, this seemed obvious: The Times had every right to classify whatever it wanted as “breaking news;” it’s not The Times’ job to preserve the mystery of NBC’s programming, it’s The Times’ job to report the news. My friend was apoplectic. “They’re spoiling the show! They should at least put a spoiler alert at the beginning!”
And that, friends, is the difference between watching sports and watching the Olympics. We insist on watching our sports live in America, and discussing them live, because we hang so much on the outcome. We’ve been watching these players and teams for years. We have to find out what happens immediately.
The notion of a “spoiler alert” for an NBA Finals game is ludicrous. But not in the Olympics. The same way you don’t want to find out who wins on “Survivor” until you watch it is the same way you don’t care whether the Olympic event you’re watching is live or not. You care deeply in the moment, and then, when it’s over, you forget all about it. That’s reality television. And that’s the Olympics.