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NBC has sucked all of the suspense out of the Olympics

The network edits the games like they’re a gigantic reality show.

Athletics - Olympics: Day 12
Of course, suspense is in limited supply whenever Usain Bolt is around.
Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The more I watch of NBC’s primetime Olympic coverage, the more perplexed I am by how bad it is.

As I stated last week, the network’s streaming app is a terrific way to watch the Olympics, and its daytime coverage on both NBC and its various cable networks is solid too. But in the primetime hours, NBC reimagines an athletic competition as an episode of Dateline, and it just doesn’t work. And those primetime installments are by far the most watched Olympics coverage out there, so they’re most viewers’ primary consumption of the Olympics.

I’ve generally chalked this up to NBC treating the Olympics as entertainment, not sports. But, of course, sports are a form of entertainment, and plenty of other networks (including NBC) present them as events in progress, not as carefully packaged and edited stories cut down from prerecorded footage.

So what makes NBC’s Olympics coverage so bad, so wedded to stupid narratives, so airless?

After watching more of it, I think I have an answer: The network has completely eliminated suspense from the equation.

This coverage utilizes some of the worst aspects of reality show editing

Athletics - Olympics: Day 13
Coverage of the decathlon, featuring American Ashton Eaton, has been plagued by the same editing issues as NBC’s gymnastics coverage.
Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images

A good case in point is the network’s coverage of gymnastics events. It airs these events in primetime, but they actually occur in the afternoon, Eastern time, so everything viewers see is something that has already happened and we can go and look up the results if we really want to.

This, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Contriving to put the biggest events in primetime, regardless of time differences, has been a staple of TV coverage of the games since the very earliest days. (Whether this should continue to be the case in an age of social media and streaming remains an open question.) But with every Olympiad, NBC turns its coverage of these events more and more into a reality show.

Its edits eliminate everything inconvenient to telling a straightforward story about a hero (ideally an American, though a massively talented athlete from a nation Americans have heard of — Usain Bolt, for instance — will do) vanquishing all comers. It will roll through one competitor, then another, then another, then another, with little respect for the passage of time.

If you watch a lot of live sports on TV, you’ll know that they’re mostly dead air. The players will run a play, and then there will be a long period where they wander around and you wait for something to happen. Whether it’s a slow dribble downcourt on basketball or the pitcher waiting for the catcher to call for the right pitch, a lot of sports is about the tension that arises in these moments of waiting for something to happen.

This is true of the Olympics as well. Think of, say, when gymnasts used to have to wait for the judges to provide their scores, of the tension in that moment when everything could be dashed. NBC has mostly cut out that waiting period entirely, in favor of footage of other gymnasts, or cutting to commercial, or just jumping right to the scores.

Nothing illustrates just how packaged this footage is more than the commentators, who are ostensibly commenting on things live as they happen but are always, always in sync with NBC’s preconceived narratives.

There are no occasions where they seem startled, or where we cut in on them as they were in the middle of talking about something else. All of the evidence suggests NBC cuts together the package and then records voiceover for it.

You can look at events other than gymnastics to see this as well. For instance, NBC presented the decathlon largely as a collection of quick moments — showing only the final high jump from several competitors, say. Its presentation of the events features no tension, no buildup. It’s all release, all the time.

Thus, for many events — but for the prerecorded events especially — NBC more or less presents the Olympics like a reality show. It has winner and loser edits (an industry term for the kinds of edits provided to favored contestants — and their opposite — in reality shows). It knows what’s going to happen. And it tries to cut everything together to maximize not the story of the event, but the ending it already knows is coming.

This is even worse in an Olympics with fewer upsets

Swimming - Olympics: Day 7
There aren’t too many upsets when Katie Ledecky is around.
Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images

This is only more pronounced in 2016, because for the most part, the competitors expected to dominate in the sports NBC cares about have largely dominated. Simone Biles laid waste to the gymnastics field. Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky performed tremendously in the pool. Usain Bolt was Usain Bolt.

Certainly there have been exciting stories at these Olympics. Britain’s Mo Farah stumbling, then coming back to win the men’s 10,000m run — something NBC presented largely as it happened — was exciting no matter how you looked at it. And there have been upsets here and there, too.

But NBC’s approach robs most events of their excitement, of the sense that anything can happen that you get from watching live coverage (or tape-delayed coverage that pretends to be live). Without that suspense, they’re as telegraphed as anything else on TV, with easily predictable endings and storylines that come complete with heavy network influence, the better to tell you what to think.

NBC claims to have lots of market research that says this is how its viewers want to consume the games. And considering the ratings for Rio are off from the ratings for London in 2012, but not by that much, it’s entirely possible the network is right.

But it makes for a much blander, much less interesting broadcast when the network doesn’t seem all that interested in the fact that sports are about rise and fall — or the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, as Wide World of Sports used to have it. NBC wants only the highlights, and it’s creating a worse TV show.

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