The pity of it is that it took an event as lethal and spirit rattling as the explosion of a bomb in Centennial Olympic Park to shake a sense of propriety into NBC. Until that awful morning, nine days into the Games, the cavalcade of indiscriminate TV boosterism had continued unchecked: for athletic events (complete with hyperventilating commentators); for American athletes and the occasional non-American human interest story (complete with purple prose along the lines of ”Javier Sotomayor lives in the shadow of Cuba’s evil past and the possibility of Cuba’s not-so-evil tomorrow”); for proud-to-be-a-sponsor product commercials (complete with website addresses for Internet junkies living lives of enough quiet desperation to want to visit, say, www.clothesline.com and learn more about Tide detergent); and for NBC itself. When gymnast Kerri Strug — now officially Gutsy Kerri Strug — completed a second vault on a seriously injured ankle because her coach, Bela Karolyi, told her to ”shake it off,” I thought perhaps there would be a moment of reflection on the part of, oh, maybe New Age composer and gymnastics commentator John Tesh (bio available on www.nbc.com) about priorities in life.
But no. As we gobbled up everything from platform diving to the lunatic techno-biking event known as team pursuit, watching in a conglomerate-induced time warp during which taped events are meant to feel live and network anchors shield us from the results they already know, the network’s ratings soared to their highest Olympics levels in 20 years. And then a bomb went off, directly killing one bystander and profoundly unnerving a country of TV watchers still reeling from the concept of an American plane blown to bits out of the American sky.
In the three days, at this writing, since that bomb went off in Atlanta, television coverage of the Olympic Games has changed irrevocably. Sure, the hysteria-prone Tim Daggett still natters on about ”sticking it.” But NBC has wised up to the depressing realization that even on U.S. soil, we live in a time when no place is safe. And self-congratulatory cheerleading is unwarranted. And so, while the home crowds still yell wildly for the home athletes, the commentary has thankfully calmed down a notch. More credit is being given to international athletes. Hey, the other night Bob Costas went so far as to say that perhaps ”we” (i.e., ”they,” NBC) did Irish swimmer Michelle Smith a disservice by so readily reporting the allegation, unfounded, that her success was due to performance-enhancing drugs! It is not, Costas said, the American way to treat people as guilty until proven innocent. Costas sticks the landing!
Such small attitude adjustments matter, because when the world gets exciting, the world turns to television. And we are, in some deep ways, never as united as when we are united in front of our TV sets, watching the same pictures, all of us taking in information at the same time. When important things happen, good or bad, it is the small screen that allows us to feel as if we’re linked, if only by our common recognition of Bob Costas. Or Kato Kaelin. Together, we tune in to watch teams compete, presidents get elected, or cops chase celebrities in white Ford Broncos. Usually, of course, we’re offered plenty of viewing options: One low-speed freeway chase is enough breaking news to employ commentators and reporters on some seven or eight channels in many broadcast areas.
But when, as with the Olympics, coverage of some portion of the world has been bought by one television network, then even the subtlest tonal adjustments take on huge significance. The last thing we depressed, well-meaning, patient, captive home viewers need is to be Teshed to death. I wish it didn’t take a bomb for NBC to realize that too. B