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TV TATTLE

NBC, which made the Tokyo Olympics the "Simone Biles Games," seems oblivious to its role in her exit

  • During NBC's coverage of Simone Biles' withdrawal this week, the network has ignored "the role it may have played in creating the conditions for Biles’ sudden exit," says Justin Peters. "As per its cyclical mandate to give casual American sports fans one or two big-name U.S. Olympians for whom to root, NBC has effectively turned the Tokyo Games into the Simone Biles Games. In the run-up to the Olympics and during the first few days of competition, you could hardly visit any NBC-branded property without encountering some sort of coverage of Biles, her chances for matching or exceeding her memorable Rio performance, and her uncharacteristic stumbles in the Olympic trials and in the qualifying rounds. The American gymnastics squad is filled with immensely talented and likable athletes. As far as NBC is concerned, though, there’s Simone Biles, and then there’s all these other people who just happen to be on her team." Peters adds: "As the leading promoter of the Olympics in the U.S., it is a bit rich for NBC to report on the psychological pressures faced by Biles without also reflecting on the ways in which its choice to make Tokyo the Simone Games surely intensified those pressures. It’d be sort of like if your boss announced to an auditorium filled with your co-workers that the fate of the company was riding on your work output, and then took you aside to sympathetically observe that you looked stressed, and that the key to happiness was a healthy work-life balance. While I cannot blame NBC for featuring Biles as its star attraction, the network ought to be able to candidly assess and admit the ramifications of its own wall-to-wall coverage. Simone Biles made herself a champion. NBC tried to make her into a superhero. The fact that she chose to reject the cape should prompt a reevaluation of the process by which it was sewn for her in the first place. The job of creating quadrennial TV sports heroes isn’t an easy one. The discontinuous nature of the Olympics means that casual fans don’t have many opportunities to develop deep rooting interests in most of the sports therein. As such, most people really do rely on NBC and its affiliates to curate a roster of superstars to cheer for and complain about. This is the reason why NBC focuses so intensely and unflinchingly on five or six people each games. With only two-and-a-half weeks to work with, the network needs to go overboard drumming it into your head that these are the people to watch. For the people being watched, though, this sudden, inescapable pressure and attention can be an incredibly alienating experience. Unlike basketball, football, and baseball players in the United States, elite Olympic athletes like Biles do not exist under a continuous microscope. Outside of their sports’ superfans, most Americans watch them intensely for a couple of weeks every four years, and then basically don’t think about them unless they appear in a Subway commercial or their sport makes the news for its abusive practices. We put all this pressure on them to perform, and then feign confusion when they cite all that pressure as the reason why they didn’t perform."

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    • Does watching the Olympics make you a bad person?: "The Olympic Games in Tokyo have been even more fraught than usual with ethical issues," says Sasha Mudd. "Alarm over the rising number of Covid-19 cases and the Games’ deep unpopularity with Japanese people sit atop perennial concerns about corruption, cheating, the abuse of athletes and the environmental impact of mounting such an enormous event. These problems have fueled debate, hand-wringing and even demands to end the Olympics altogether. Despite all that, the Games are underway, and for most of the world’s population, there is only one moral decision left to make: To watch or not to watch? If you are one of the many who view the actions of the International Olympic Committee, the television stations and sponsors, and the nations competing as morally wrong, is it ethical for you to tune in? Of course, viewers aren’t watching the Games to intentionally endorse a corrupt system or the idea of profit over public health. They’re watching to celebrate our common humanity, to be awed by athletic excellence and to witness the drama of Olympic dreams being dashed or realized. But by opting to watch the Olympics, do we give a tacit thumbs-up to the entire spectacle, ethical problems and all? At the heart of this worry is the idea that merely by choosing to be entertained by something that involves wrongdoing, we become complicit in it. But just how worried should we be? To answer this question, the idea of complicity needs unpacking."
    • Should NBC News be covering the Tokyo Games as if it's a major news story?: "During their broadcasts on Monday, ABC’s World News Tonight and CBS’s Evening News devoted about two minutes each to recounting the latest triumphs and disappointments at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo," says Paul Farhi. "Over on NBC’s Nightly News, however, it was a different story — a much bigger one. Anchoring live from Tokyo, Lester Holt introduced a parade of news stories and features about the Games. There was the latest on superstar gymnast Simone Biles and two separate interviews with U.S. swimmers, complete with copious highlight footage. The broadcast even had time for a piece about a controversy over women’s uniforms. In all, the network devoted more than eight minutes of its broadcast, or roughly a third of its airtime, to the Olympics. NBC News’s representatives say its extensive coverage is driven by public interest and newsworthiness. A spokesperson said the Games are 'the world’s largest event in every way' and the first major gathering of the coronavirus era, thus justifying the program’s intense focus on all things Olympics-related. But NBC’s news judgment may have something to do with corporate priorities — and a whole lot of money, too. NBC News is owned by NBCUniversal, which has committed more than $12 billion for the exclusive TV and digital rights to 10 Summer and Winter Games from 2014 to 2032. The company’s sports division is showcasing thousands of hours of the competition in Tokyo on NBC and on a constellation of smaller company-owned networks, such as CNBC, USA and Peacock, its streaming service. NBCUniversal has sold more than $1.2 billion in advertising around its Olympics coverage this year, more than its haul at the Rio Olympics in 2016, and the network is counting on wide exposure to help sell subscriptions to Peacock. With so much on the line for NBCUniversal and its parent company, Comcast, its news division has gotten behind the effort, too."
    • Lester Holt on being in "soft quarantine" while anchoring NBC Nightly News from Tokyo: "Well, it means that I’m not stuck indoors for 14 days," he says. "They require us to stay at the hotel for 14 days. But within that as journalists we can go to venues. So the other day I had to go to the Olympic stadium. Our whereabouts are pre-notified — that I’m going to this venue and I’m doing this — but nothing that has really inhibited our ability to cover the Games. The restrictions really come to play when it comes to getting out and about on the streets. "

    TOPICS: Simone Biles, NBC, NBC Sports, Summer Olympics




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