The human drama of athletic competition

My standard Olympic complaint usually applies no matter who buys the rights to the coverage. It goes like this:
The Olympics is an incredible sports festival. There are enough sporting events, in fact, that whichever network buys the rights could fill their entire schedule for the duration of the Olympics with nothing but coverage of sporting events. Instead, what we get is hour after hour of fluffy human interest stories with the occasional event final thrown in if there's a chance that an American might win. I understand that there are people who tune in to watch that sort of thing, and I don't generally have a problem with those sorts of people having access to their preferred flavor of drivel, but goddammit, the Olympics are a sporting event and the focus ought to be on the constant variety of sports.

Not mentioned, but maybe implicit, in this critique is the thought that the conventions of Olympic broadcasting made a lot more sense before the cable age. When most everyone was limited to three or four channels, it made sense for the networks to pander to the common denominator among their potential audience. Sports fans would tune in because at the end of the day its the Olympics. The problem for the networks was to attract those viewers who would as soon see the opening scenes of Heidi as watch the final moments of an athletic competition.

For the last 20 years, though, pandering to the common denominator has been a recipe for irrelevance. The explosion in the number of channels, even on basic cable, means that narrowly targeting a particular audience is a better strategy for success than is trying to be unobjectionable to all viewers.

Which brings me to the fact that the coverage of this Olympics seems to be different. I'm sure it's partly due to time zones, and 25% due to the fact that I live in a border state, but my experience so far is that there are always at least two, and often as many as four, channels broadcasting the Olympics. Of those four, only NBC ever runs those puff pieces. Right now, at 3:30am, I've got a choice between swimming on NBC and whitewater canoeing on USA. CBC and MSNBC were, until 3, also providing coverage. Naturally, I'm watching Starship Troopers.

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