Thursday, August 21, 2008

Olympic Gold for NBC

In past years, Helen and I have been disgusted with the quality of American television coverage of the Olympic Games. The broadcasters spent far too much time on fluff pieces, background stories and interviews of the athletes, and they have paid a disproportionate amount of attention to American athletes and their medal contentions. We wanted to see world class sports, and we wanted to see a wide variety. Too much attention to non-event programming and to only those sports in which Americans did well left us extremely unsatisfied.

This year, I'm delighted to find that NBC is actually doing a pretty good job. They haven't given up the interviews and background stuff, but there doesn't seem to be nearly as much of it. They have spent too much time replaying highlights over and over, especially those in which Americans starred, but at least the highlights are short.

A hit, a palpable hit!

Naturally the network is still paying extra attention to those sports in which Americans have medal hopes. In one respect this was good for me, because it meant that at long last, we were treated to some fairly lengthy and detailed coverage of fencing.

I'm a fencer myself (definitely not of Olympic quality), and I can almost never find fencing on television. (I mean sport fencing, not choreographed swashbucklers.) I'll admit that there's at least one good reason for this: fencing is too fast and subtle to make good television. TV only shows 30 frames per second, which is about 33 milliseconds between frames. But some fencing moves happen much faster than that; they literally can't be captured on TV. And while some fencing actions are large and dramatic, others are tiny. It's a game of centimeters and millimeters, and again TV isn't going to do a good job of capturing that.

Nevertheless, NBC gave significant coverage to women's team and individual sabre, and men's team sabre. The US fencers won more medals in the 2008 games than in all the games going back for over 50 years. NBC provided color commentators that did a reasonable job of explaining what was going on, and they had slow-motion replays of the interesting points. (I was hoping for super-slo-mo, which might actually have been able to capture the fastest action; but regular slow-motion was still worth watching.)

Faster, Higher, Stronger Bandwidth

It's possible that our rosy view of these games' coverage is due to satellite TV and a Tivo; these amenities let us record an awful lot of coverage, and easily skip the boring bits. Perhaps if we saw only the VHF broadcasts we'd be less happy. But we had satellite and Tivo for the 2004 Athens games, and I think the 2008 is significantly better.

One piece of new technology (okay, a lot of interlocking pieces of new technology!) has definitely improved my experience of these games. The NBCOlympics Web site contains a staggering number of hours of streamable video, apparently covering every sport at the games. As much as I enjoyed watching the sabre bouts on broadcast, I'm a foil fencer and I wanted to see foil. And on they've got it, hours and hours of it. This footage lacks the commentary (which is fine with me) yet includes the slow-motion replays.

But I give MSNBC a downcheck for making me install yet another browser plug-in from Microsoft in order to see those videos, something called "SilverLight". It does a perfectly good job of showing the videos, but so do several other prior standards; and incredibly SilverLight lacks proper controls for rewind and fast-forward. Why couldn't they just use QuickTime? (Answer: Because Microsoft are control freaks, and they didn't invent QuickTime. Today the Olympics, tomorrow the world!)


The bottom line: a very good job, although with room for improvement. Next time, let's have fewer and shorter interviews, and fewer replays of those interviews. Dump SilverLight, if it hasn't become a real standard with a real set of playback controls. And I wouldn't mind if they showed fewer hours of the standard team sports and more hours of the "little stuff" that you usually don't get to see. I can watch basketball, soccer, and baseball pretty much any time, and it's a shame to waste hours of Olympic coverage on it.

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