High Fructose Corn Syrup: Why NBC Won’t Show the Olympics in Real Time
By Dennis Loo (7/30/12)
Many are criticizing NBC for its taped delay broadcast of the London Olympics and for pressing Twitter to suspend Guy Adams’ Twitter account – Adams is England’s The Independent newspaper’s reporter, based in L.A. - in retaliation for Adams’ vocal tweeted criticisms of NBC’s coverage. So much for the victory of social media over the old media.
So I have a question: Why should we expect NBC to handle the Olympics differently than they do their other news?
We can expect them to be just as ethnocentric as they are usually, treating sports that the U.S. isn’t participating in or isn’t that good at, as nearly non-existent.
We can expect them to present the games as a neatly packaged story, complete with ersatz drama mixed in with real drama.
And we can expect them to treat real events in real time as something that they can readily alter, just as they do so often with political and economic news.
NBC is only doing to sports news what they do with most of the news – fabricating the news in ways that suits its needs best, not the needs of those who are enthusiastic about watching the best performances in athletics, no matter who they are and where they’re from, and those who want to know what’s actually going on in politics, economics, and so on.
Dick Ebersol, who was NBC’s czar of sports coverage for decades and who is acting as advisor to their London Olympics coverage, used to say that the story wasn’t the sports but the athletes. In an interview in 2010 conducted by Tom Brokaw, Ebersol said, in defense of his emphasis on making the personal back stories of athletes central to NBC’s coverage of sports, “why would anybody in Des Moines care about somebody who is about to run a particular event?”
Gee, I don’t know Dick, maybe there are people in Des Moines who love sports or at least can appreciate the beauty of watching people pushing their bodies to the absolute limit in the athletic event itself? Maybe that’s what people watch sports for in the first place?
While Ebersol is correct that people love stories, what he (and NBC) have failed (rather spectucularly so) to realize is that sporting events themselves are the very stuff of legend. Sports and games (such as chess) are stylized warfare, and warfare itself is intrinsically dramatic because warfare is the clash of opponents with the stakes as high as they get: literally life and death.
Ebersol’s view that you have to ladle a lot of High Fructose Corn Syrup on the sports events themselves, dressing them up with narratives and glossy posed pictures of the athletes as if they were professional models, is like thinking that you have to dye strawberries red to make people realize how gorgeously red they are. It is like saying that the story about politics isn’t the actual policies but the jockeying between the two major parties and the faces and personalities of their leading figures.
In addition, Ebersol and the U.S. mainstream media more generally, infantalize the American people.
Is there a mainstream viewing audience? Of course; there is a mainstream in every culture and every polity.
Does the American mainstream have viewing preferences that are less sophisticated than the non-mainstream? By defintion.
But when Ebersol defends his taped delayed broadcasting as meeting the desires of "90%" of the American people who, he claims, want to see the Olympics in prime time, and when NBC treats its viewers as overwhelmingly only interested in American athletes, they foster the narrowest sentiments. They are not, in other words, only doing what the audience wants. They are shaping the audience and feeding the most philistine and depriving the people of the really huge world that sports is and should be portrayed as.
Addendum, from Globalization and the Demolition of Society:
In the 2000 Presidential race, when the major TV networks retracted their earlier and correct projection that Florida was going to Gore, thus making him President, Bush’s cousin John Ellis, who was brought into Fox’s studios to act as the head of their “decision desk,” called Florida for Bush. Jack Welch, head of NBC/GE, who was in the NBC studios while this unfolded, asked the NBC elections desk chief why NBC was not also calling Florida for Bush. NBC listened to their boss and put Florida in Bush’s column; they later retracted it, but they had nevertheless helped to set into motion the impression that Bush was the winner and that Gore’s subsequent insistence that all the votes be counted were the actions of a sore loser.[i] The rest of the major networks then followed suit, again without any new data about the actual vote count.[ii] As David Podvin and Carolyn Kay describe it:
Shortly after George W. Bush declared his candidacy for president in June of 1999, General Electric Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Jack Welch was contacted by Bush political advisor Karl Rove. Welch later informed associates that Rove told him a Bush administration would initiate comprehensive deregulation of the broadcast industry. Rove guaranteed that deregulation would be implemented in a way that would create phenomenal profits for conglomerates with significant media holdings, like GE. Rove forcefully argued that General Electric and the other media giants had a compelling financial interest to see Bush become president.
Welch told several people at GE that the conversation with Rove convinced him that a Bush presidency would ultimately result in billions of dollars of additional profits for General Electric. Welch believed that it was his responsibility to operate in the best interest of GE shareholders, and that now meant using the full power of the world’s biggest corporation to get Bush into the White House.
Toward that end, Welch said that he would finally deal with a longstanding grievance of his: the ludicrous idea that news organizations should be allowed to operate in conflict with the best interests of the corporations that own them.
Since the beginning of the country, it has been considered appropriate for the business community to exercise its right to aggressively support the candidate that best represented its interests. The new dimension that Welch introduced was the concept that the mainstream media should aggressively advance the political agenda of the corporations that own it. He did not see any difference between corporate journalism and corporate manufacturing or corporate service industries. Business was business, and the difference between winners and losers was profit, whether you were selling nuclear power or ads on the network news. From Welch’s perspective, it was insanity, not to mention bad business practice, for the corporate owners of the mainstream media to restrain themselves from using all of their assets to promote their financial well being.
In general, he saw corporate news organizations as untapped political resources that should be freed from the burden of objectivity.
Specifically, NBC News was an asset owned by the shareholders of General Electric. It existed to make profits and to serve the interests of those who owned GE stock. Period.
Anything else, Welch told associates, was “liberal bullshit.”
In 1988, NBC News president Lawrence Grossman insisted to Welch that news was a public trust and should not be subjected to the same pressure to make profits that was applied to other GE units. Welch fired him. (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, pp. 277-278)
[i] See Robert Parry, “Price of the ‘Liberal Media’ Myth,” ConsortiumNews.com, January 1, 2003, http://www.consortiumnews.com/Print/123102a.html, accessed January 5, 2009.
See also Dan Kennedy, “Jack Welch’s Journalistic values (II),” Media Nation (blog), October 28, 2006, http://www.dankennedy.net/2006/10/, accessed February 11, 2009.
[ii] Michael I. Niman, “Bush Cousin Calls Presidential Election,” Buffalo Beat, MediaStudy.com, December 14, 2000, http://www.mediastudy.com/articles/jellis.html, accessed May 23, 2009.