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Sochi Olympics Earns Gold for TV

THR's chief television critic writes that the Games may be nitpicked over ratings and a dearth of American gold medals, but that misses the point entirely.

Sochi Olympics Men Freestyle Skiing - H 2014
AP Photo/Andy Wong
Moments like this helped make the Olympics great television.

Another Olympics is in the books and two weeks of great television -- and a wonderful diversion -- has come to an end.

People who watch the Olympics for the thrill of competition -- which is probably most people -- will come away from the Sochi experience having witnessed all kinds of unpredictable, riveting television.

Those who watch it only to see Americans win gold -- people who after the fact deem an event less fulfilling if our athletes win a silver or bronze -- may not be as excited.

Too bad. Also: whatever. If it’s all jingoism to you, then you’re missing the point (and spirit) of not only the Olympics but sport itself.

STORY: Who Are the Stars of the Sochi Olympics? 

And a certain segment of the media will always be interested in the ratings, which should never, ever be a concern for the home viewer. Let NBC worry about ratings. And I doubt very much that NBC will be displeased by the numbers at Sochi -- not only because the Olympics dominated all of television for two weeks but because four-year-old comparisons to Vancouver are hardly a real-life indicator of success, given how swiftly television as an industry changes yearly, much less four years back when Netflix and Hulu weren’t quite the players they are today and Americans were four years less inclined to, say, watch streaming videos and live content on NBCOlympics.com.

No, the real reason to watch the Olympics -- winter or summer -- is for the competition, the races, the personal challenges or, to borrow from a different network who put it best so many years ago, “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

We had a lot of that at Sochi. And if you want, sure, we can start with American success. There was Charlie White and Meryl Davis in ice dancing; 18-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin in women’s slalom; Ted Ligety in giant slalom; David Wise and Maddie Bowman in freestyle skiing halfpipe; Sage Kotsenburg in snowboarding slopestyle (why isn’t that called dopestyle?); Joss Christensen in men’s freestyle skiing slopestyle; Kaitlyn Farrington for women’s halfpipe snowboarding; and Jamie Anderson for women’s snowboarding slopestyle.

Those were all golds.

But there were plenty of other great moments for the United States as well, including Erin Hamlin’s bronze in the women’s luge, Kelly Clark – now a 30-year-old in the sport – getting bronze in the women’s snowboarding halfpipe; Noelle Pikus-Pace’s silver in women’s skeleton; Matthew Antoine’s bronze in men’s skeleton; 36-year-old Bode Miller’s bronze in the Super-G; the women’s silver medal in hockey; and Steve Holcomb piloting the men’s two-man and four-man “bobsleigh” teams to bronze.

The stories were everywhere.

And those stories encompassed numerous flags from all around the world. Watching the Olympics to see someone’s hard-earned dreams come true is always television that sets the hook in you. Part of that is what’s on the line. When one Olympics is over, next up is four years of training (if you make it) to try again. To put that much time into something and come up a fraction of a second shy of a medal is gutting -- something the viewer at home feels, too.

But the heartbreaking losses put the victories -- from gold to bronze -- in perspective. That agony of defeat -- whether it’s Shaun White, Lindsey Jacobellis or the women’s hockey team -- puts every athlete’s sweat, commitment and medal dreams on display and lets the world know how much it all mattered to them. That human element, no matter from what country the athlete hails, is what makes this two-week detour on television so magnetic.

That’s not to say everything was perfect, of course. Poor Bob Costas and his eyes made national news (and he was, indeed, missed when he was out). NBC reporters, whether they were urged to or not, spent too much time trying to wring emotion from athletes (see: Bode Miller). And from a storytelling and medal-winning perspective, yes, there were utter washouts. Like Lindsey Vonn missing the Olympics entirely, Shaun White falling off his pedestal or the men’s hockey team, so thrillingly triumphant in their first game against Russia (T.J. Oshie going 4-for-6 in the overtime shootout!), missing the bronze medal by getting blown out.

But again, that’s part of the experience. Hell, beyond winning and losing, just being there doing your best is part of the tapestry. There were so many exhilarating and entertaining Olympic moments -- such as the total domination of the Netherlands in speed skating, or speed skater Victor Ahn’s emotional split from South Korea and his success as a newly minted Russian -- that cumulatively any nagging, negative moments didn’t matter.

The Winter Olympics delivered on its promise -- and medal counts and ratings are not part of that promise. From a television perspective, the Games gave viewers two weeks of drama and passion, and that’s all any of us should ask for from any Olympics.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine