If any one thing symbolized the rocky first week of NBC's Turin Olympics coverage, it was snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis' showboating fall Friday that prevented her from winning a gold medal. Anything that could go wrong did go wrong for NBC.
And like Jacobellis, NBC is in denial. She originally denied that she was showboating, but in a later studio interview with Olympic host Bob Costas she was a little more forthcoming.
NBC is in denial, too, about the popularity of the Games. It sends TV critics daily releases trying to put a positive spin on the prime time ratings. Sometimes, the explanations get a little comical. For instance, NBC notes the Games are getting double the ratings of NBC's normal prime-time programming.
In other words, it is double the anemic prime-time ratings that NBC has been receiving this season. NBC's regular prime-time ratings woes are largely responsible for the disappointing ratings for the Olympics. In past Winter Olympics, NBC's coverage replaced the programs that America considered must-see and its rivals had few of them to compete against.
Now Fox, ABC and CBS have must-see programs like "American Idol," "Dancing With the Stars," "Grey's Anatomy," "Desperate Housewives" and "CSI." And they are winning the Olympic competition. Last Thursday, NBC's Olympic coverage in Buffalo finished third at 8 p.m. to two reality series, "Dancing With the Stars" on ABC and "Survivor" on CBS. Oh, well, at least "Dancing" is live. The Olympics even lost locally Thursday to a "CSI" repeat, and a "Without a Trace" repeat almost beat it, too.
NBC is hoping for better things starting tonight, when ladies figure skating begins. It is also trying to sell controversy by hyping the conflict between gold medal speedskaters Chad Hedrick and Shani Davis. The conflict and its hype are a little unsettling and perhaps a little unfair. Race isn't mentioned, but it is there. Hedrick is being portrayed as the good All-American Southern boy who was upset that Davis wouldn't skate in a team event that the United States lost. Davis, the first black to win individual gold at the Winter Olympics, is being portrayed as a talented but selfish trailblazer who feels everyone in skating is against him.
Hedrick, in a smiling interview, says so many of the right things that it seems scripted. Davis' monosyllabic Saturday interview with NBC's Melissa Stark after he won gold in the 1,000-meter skate was painful to watch. It was so painful that Stark asked him if he was angry. On Sunday, NBC gave Davis a shot at image repair in a second interview.
Of course, by the time NBC carries the race tonight, most of America will have discovered who has won via the Internet, ESPN or some other outlet. NBC still is operating under the antiquated idea that it has to keep up the suspense in its tape-delayed coverage. It might be better off acknowledging the elephant in the room nightly and promoting the coverage by saying: "Watch Lindsey Jacobellis Join the Olympic Hall of Infamy" or "Watch How Bode Miller Falls Again."
Clearly, American stumbles have robbed these Olympics of any water-cooler ratings momentum. The addition of snowboarding has added to the U.S. medal total, and it may have even attracted more younger viewers. But the transparent attempt to attract American viewers also has diminished the aura of the traditional events and made the Games appear to be the X Games. It's almost an American acknowledgment that if we can't compete with the foreigners on traditional Winter Olympic events, we'll create and hype our own.
It is natural for NBC to focus its coverage on Americans and not unique to the broadcasts of all countries. But some of NBC's strongest pieces have been on foreign competitors. Its heartwarming piece Saturday on the Croatian women's combined ski champ Janica Kostelic, her brother and father was a gold medal winner. Sunday's coverage of the cross-country victory by the host Italian team was beautifully shot and told.
"This is close to over the top in Italy," said Costas. "This is bigger than big."
NBC's ratings aren't bigger than big. There is an extra reason for Buffalo's mediocre ratings. Channel 2 finished tied for 32nd out of the top 55 markets on Saturday and is No. 27 for the entire Games through Saturday. CBC's live coverage, especially on weekend afternoons, is a strong alternative to NBC's prime time taped coverage that is worth a few ratings points.
By now, viewers here also realize that nothing much of national importance airs on NBC before 10 p.m., which is close to bed time for many of us. Why wait until past 11 tonight to see who won the Davis-Hedrick match when all you have to do is turn to ESPN and find out who won?
It was almost midnight Sunday before NBC showed the breathtaking performance of American ice dancers Ben Agosto and his Canadian-born partner, Tanith Belbin. NBC was practically daring viewers to choose between watching them and going to sleep.
As a further sign of the Olympic interest decline, for many of us sleep triumphs over patriotism.