12:15pm PT by Daniel Fienberg
Critic's Notebook: Adam Rippon and Shaun White Illustrate Challenges of NBC's Winter Olympics Coverage
Quadrennial curling blindness is like something out of an Oliver Sacks casebook.
Every four years, Americans encounter this sport, and every four years we go through a virtually identical arc of pantomimed amusement at the sweeping and rocks, as if curling had somehow become more foreign. Curling was in the first Winter Olympics in 1924 and it has been a regular part of Olympics coverage since at least 1998, but the giggles and perplexities remain the same every time.
Coming from a very specific America-centric perspective, the Summer Olympics are intuitive. Ten athletes line up at one point and run 100 yards to a finish line, head-to-head. The winner takes gold. That process is repeated at varying distances, sometimes in a swimming pool. People jump over poles of increasing heights and try to throw things the farthest. Yes, we have to pretend every four years that we understand the scoring system to diving, but the events of the Summer Games tend heavily toward things you could do in your backyard. The Winter Olympics also have plenty of events that are intuitive, with skiers swiveling around bumps; snowboarding disciplines that migrated from the X-Games; and the usual varieties of figure skating, which comes in flavors from "individual" to "pairs" to "dancing."
How does this impact NBC, the network entrusted with shaping our Olympics experience? Amply, since NBC, unlike many of the networks broadcasting the games in other countries, is convinced that Americans require or demand a heavier level of curation, as opposed to just showing sporting events. I would reductively break down the network's responsibilities, as NBC sees it, as four-fold: capturing the scope of the Olympics as a whole; capturing the cultural context of the host country; crafting individual narratives to hook viewers on an emotional level; and, on a very micro level, just making sure that viewers are able to understand what the heck we're watching.
The funny thing is that for all the complaints about NBC's coverage — soppy sentimentality, jingoism, etc. — of the Summer Olympics, it sure beats the difficulties NBC faces every fourth winter. The curling coverage I've watched in recent days has been so dedicated to explaining the sport's most basic rules that you'd think the network and the announcers were convinced we were, as an American culture, incapable of ever figuring it out. And if you looked at the predictable tweets of mock bemusement, you'd probably agree.
Or maybe NBC thinks we're stubborn and prefer not to learn? That's a conclusion that might be justified by the "Why are figure-skating announcers so mean?" complaints that greet the wonderful cattiness of Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir every time NBC trots them out.
To make this excruciatingly clear: Tara and Johnny aren't especially mean. They're critical. It's their job. They do it reasonably well. Just because you, at home, thought that graceful skater was perfect and lovely and magical doesn't mean they're supposed to only use those adjectives. This is not to say that Lipinski and Weir are perfect. NBC has them doing things that aren't entirely in their bailiwick. On Tuesday (Feb. 13) night, Tara and Johnny, solo skaters both, were frequently admitting their limitations in evaluating pairs — and they made, and admitted to, occasional errors, like when they missed that a vaunted German duo messed up what was supposed to be a simultaneous triple, raving about the maneuver during the performance and only apologizing, in depth, afterward. But they're trying. Audiences just aren't listening.
Take, for example, the outrage about Adam Rippon's free skate in the team skating competition (an event many viewers didn't even realize was a team competition, added at least in part so that the Olympics and NBC could extend the cash cow that is skating). Tara and Johnny spent multiple days telling us about scoring changes, only "relatively new" rather than "new," that prioritized innovation and technical aspiration over more basic artistry. I didn't watch every second of the preceding coverage, but I heard more than a few times that failing on a quad was being treated as superior to succeeding on triples. So then Rippon goes out and he's clean and exuberant and quite wonderful to watch and a Russian guy goes out and he's seemingly falling on his butt constantly and the Russian guy gets a better score and people are up in arms in confusion at Rippon being robbed, and how many of those people do you think also denigrated Johnny and Tara for being mean? Rippon wasn't robbed. At all. He did a less technically exacting program knowing what the scoring system was based on. Those are the rules and Tara and Johnny explained them to you when they weren't making more nebulous claims about skaters being cold or lacking connection to whatever second-rate cover of a recognizable song they were skating to.
[Rippon, for what it's worth, has done a stellar job turning a single strong skate into what I assume will be a lucrative future announcing career. He's hilarious, pointed and catty, and if you were to put him in a booth with Tara and Johnny, in place of Terry Gannon, heads might just explode.]
Other than the one duo who just left them babbling about "all the feels," Tara and Johnny haven't reached the surrender stage yet. The announcers covering the men's half-pipe did. After a while, if you don't understand the difference between a Switch McTwist and a Sneaky Pete and a 9760 Reverse, no amount of slo-mo is going to spell that out any clearer. As we neared the end of the men's half-pipe on Tuesday, one commentator finally said, "Just know the bigger the number, the bigger the score."
As NBC wanted to show it, the half-pipe final was Shaun White against the rest of the world and that was the narrative the network was going with, and between that basic narrative and the diminishing returns of trying to spell out rules more in-depth than "Falling down is bad," that was all NBC made time for on Tuesday.
That left little room for complicating factors, like a really ugly 2016 sexual harassment complaint against man of the night White. With announcers harping over and over again about how this was an opportunity for redemption for White, the broadcasting network left little doubt that he was only seeking redemption for the relatively minor crime of not medaling in 2014. Where was there room to discuss the suit in NBC's programming? Perhaps in lieu of one of several hagiographic tributes to White's lengthy Olympics history? Nowhere was the gap between news and pageantry more evident than in the contrast between the uncomfortable moment at White's press conference when an ABC reporter inquired about the suit — White called it "gossip," which he has subsequently apologized for — and NBC's official post-race interview in which the former snowboarder Tina Dixon began the conversation with White in nearly tear-filled excitement and ended it with a hug.
Of those four goals, NBC has always prioritized "story," and "heartwarming story" at that. It can be as extreme as the half-pipe White-washing or as innocuous as Tara and Johnny going to great lengths to present the 14th-place short program by Americans Chris Knierim and Alexa Scimeca Knierim as a triumph because they got to skate together as a married couple at the Olympics on Valentine's Day. That's an instinct that's easier to understand than curling.