I have always been a fan of the Olympics for all of the obvious reasons. For those two weeks I watch the coverage with great anticipation and relish.
And in 2008 I had the good fortune to be living in Beijing and had the chance to attend several events in person. It was a spectacular Games and, believe it or not, a great time to be living in Beijing. The air was clean and the traffic light due to strict driving restrictions imposed by the government.
The TV coverage, provided by state-owned CCTV, was equally outstanding. You could watch nearly every event in real time and there was little time wasted on background stories or commercials. Watching an event on television was almost as good as being there in person. It’s the way the television experience of such a special sporting celebration should be.
Fast forward to the 2016 Olympics in Rio. I’m not there in person this time and have been relegated to watching the Games, on television, at least, through the lens of American media titan NBC.
And I must say that I find myself feeling more cheated than invigorated. NBC has manipulated its viewers in openly shameless ways. The biggest events are not shown in real time, even though Rio is only one hour ahead of New York. Instead, NBC has aired the most popular events in tape delay, saving the very best until late into the night, forcing viewers to endure hours of coverage that they may not have any great interest in. And for people like me, at least, to stay up well past their normal bedtime. (Only to feel the resulting fatigue the next day.)
The executives at NBC obviously did a fair amount of polling and determined that women’s gymnastics is one of the most popular events. And, indeed, it was one of the ‘must see’ events for me, as my daughter is an ardent fan and participant in the sport.
But when the team finals took place NBC chose to whet our appetites with the broadcast of two of the four events only to cut to swimming for the next two hours. They then showed the final two events late in the evening, essentially forcing me to endure the entire evening of coverage. By the time the broadcast unveiled the final results almost eight hours had passed since the women had actually finished their routines.
They don’t do this because some focus group has told them this is how viewers want to experience the Olympics. They do this, I’m quite confident, because it is a strategy to maximize advertising revenue. By forcing the viewer to watch longer, they force the humble viewer to watch more advertisements, which, in turn, allows them to charge more to the advertisers.
Frankly, I feel more manipulated in a very personal way than I ever felt while living for nine years in China. This is not the free market at work. NBC has a monopoly on American television rights to the Olympics. I have no choices. And NBC has no one to tell it what to do. Not the viewers; not the government.
And the background stories. This is obviously a broadcasting strategy that has worked well in the past and it does provide some context for some of the athletes. But it is time that could be devoted to broadcasting some of the lesser-known events, which NBC has paid little attention to, and there is always the risk of a political agenda peeking over the context.
All of which has left me thinking. What is the difference between government manipulation and the manipulation of a largely unregulated corporation with monopolistic or oligarchic power? Both are institutions. Both are motivated by self-interest. The only difference is that one is obvious and transparent and the other hides behind the false façade of free market capitalism.
If truth be told, I personally prefer the former. At least a one-party government has a strong incentive to keep people happy. Otherwise they will be thrown out of power. The only real incentive for a monopolistic broadcasting network, on the other hand, is to keep the advertisers happy. It becomes a question of institutions guiding institutions and the poor viewer, who obviously funds the whole thing in the end, is stuck with the results.
Like many viewers this time around, I have switched to watching the Olympics on streaming video. I can watch every event in real time. And there is no major event that takes place at 11:00 pm at night.
The downside is that you have to have a pretty fast Internet connection, and when all of your neighbors are streaming at the same time, even the fastest connections may not be enough for uninterrupted streaming.
And for many of the events there is no commentary. I don’t miss the professional broadcasters mind you. I did find it amusing to hear some of them try to pronounce the names of some of the Chinese athletes. But I do miss the color commentary of the sport experts who know a lot more about the sport and the athletes involved than I do.
All of which explains a lot about the absurdity of this year’s presidential election in which voters are left with a choice of two equally unappealing candidates. The average citizen is cleverer than the Beltway insiders give them credit for. People are frustrated. They’re feeling manipulated.
And they are. But it’s not a one-party political system that’s doing the manipulation. It’s worse than that.
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