On Sunday, NBC gymnastics commentator Al Trautwig wrote on Twitter that dominant American gymnast Simone Biles’s parents are not actually her parents.
Later, he deleted the tweet and apologized for it, but the internet, as it always does, remembered.
Biles’s parents are her biological grandparents, who adopted her when she was a child. Trautwig’s tweet was seen as offensive to people who are adopted — and as an adopted person myself, I can agree it’s at least in poor taste — but I think it’s a minor symptom of a much, much larger offense.
That offense is the way NBC covers the Olympics.
NBC is wedded to an outdated way of thinking about the games
Shortly before the games launched on August 5, John Miller, the NBC Olympics chief marketing officer, offered an explanation for why so many Olympic events — and particularly the opening ceremony — are aired on a tape delay, even for those who live on the East Coast, only an hour off the time in Rio (to say nothing of the West Coast, which gets everything on a tape delay).
Jonathan Tannenwald of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported the following comment:
The people who watch the Olympics are not particularly sports fans. More women watch the games than men, and for the women, they're less interested in the result and more interested in the journey. It's sort of like the ultimate reality show and mini-series wrapped into one.
It’s an idea NBC has offered before, including in press conferences I’ve attended over the years. It’s also one that is baldly sexist on its face, but one the network claims it can back up with market research. And while ratings for the 2016 games in Rio have sagged compared with those for the 2012 games in London, they’re still performing well. Clearly, most people are content enough to watch the product NBC offers.
But Miller’s statement about the type of viewers who watch the Olympics and what those viewers are most interested in gets at the heart of why NBC’s coverage is so lousy and why Trautwig’s tweet was so defensive about Biles’s parents not being her parents.
The network had so much riding on the idea of Biles’s upbringing — and the idea that she had to overcome the unfitness of her biological parents on her way to gold medal glory — that Trautwig was unable to leave the narrative behind. By my hypothesis, it was an insensitive comment, yes, but one spawned from a relentless focus on telling the same story over and over again.
The problem with NBC’s Olympics narratives is that they seem perpetually stuck in the 1980s; that’s when the network first broadcast the games, with the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul.
And since the last Olympics broadcast on any non-NBC network were the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan (which aired on CBS), and NBC has the rights to both the Summer and Winter Olympics locked up through 2032 — including streaming rights — those narratives are likely to remain in use for a long, long time.
Without any competition, the network continues to fall back on the same tired storylines about men who are gritty competitors and women who manage to fill some traditionally feminine role in addition to being athletes (when it’s not suggesting their husbands are responsible for their success, that is).
NBC continues to value American success stories over almost anything else (to the degree that not a second of the men’s gymnastics team finals aired in primetime, since the US didn’t medal). Frequently, the only non-Americans we see compete in events like gymnastics are those who have direct bearing on NBC’s US-centric narrative.
And the network continues, above all else, to suggest that the Olympic stories that matter most are the ones that offer up a wholesome, usually white face of Middle America — even when reality gets in the way.
How NBC’s relentless focus on preselected narratives shortchanged Gabby Douglas in 2012
Perhaps the best example of NBC’s narrow and stale approach to Olympic storytelling is what happened in 2012, when NBC clearly bet everything it had on gymnast Jordyn Wieber. Wieber was a Michigan native, and the kind of spunky white teenager American audiences had warmed to in the past. Heading into the games, she was considered the favorite for an all-around gold medal.
But when Wieber narrowly missed qualifying for the all-around finals and the gold medal was eventually awarded to one of her teammates, Gabby Douglas — the first black woman to win the all-around gold — NBC didn’t pivot. Its narrative continued to focus on Wieber far more than Douglas, as if the network had already produced a huge number of Wieber-related packages that it still felt obligated to air.
And for all I know, the network really did have those packages ready. NBC’s greatest sin has long been that it programs the Olympics not as a sporting event or even a news event but as a soft-focus entertainment event, a newsmagazine like Dateline.
Yes, the human interest elements of the Olympics — which allow athletes from otherwise obscure disciplines to enjoy a moment in the sun — have always been an important part of their appeal.
But with every broadcast, NBC seems to act as if those human interest elements are the only part of the games’ appeal. It’s gotten to the point where the only events the network manages to show uninterrupted are races that can be neatly sandwiched between commercials.
Look no further than the fact that NBC’s team of announcers for the opening ceremony consisted of Today show trio Matt Lauer, Meredith Vieira, and Hoda Kotb — without, say, one of the network’s foreign affairs correspondents or even sportscaster Bob Costas to offer some sort of balance.
Instead, the three chattered inanely about the various countries’ delegations, made jokes about Djibouti, and breathlessly hyped the arrival of Team USA. Sure, harmless nationalism is a big part of watching the games, but NBC sometimes seems to think it’s the only part.
It would be one thing if NBC had at least updated its game plan at some point between the 1980s and now, if it were continuing to produce the Olympics like an episode of Dateline but adapting the themes and ideals reflected therein to fit the changing times. But the whole enterprise has all the homey, forced folksiness of a Ronald Reagan campaign ad — except Reagan actually believed in what he was selling.
The irony of all of this is that NBC has a product that actually presents the Olympics in fairly straightforward fashion, as a sporting event where various countries’ hopes and dreams rest on their competitors, if only for the length of one race. Its Olympics streaming platform is a beautiful piece of software, allowing viewers the chance to just watch the events as they unfold, rather than edited to pieces and regurgitated for the primetime audience.
But the way NBC covers the Olympics on TV isn’t just unfair to sports fans, or to people who live on the West Coast, or to people who have social media and are spoiled on the results of events long before they’re broadcast. It isn’t just racist and sexist and wedded to certain socially conservative expectations of what makes a family.
No, it’s all of those things — and it’s awful, awful television.