NBC’s Olympic Reality-Variety Show Has Crested

Every four years, Americans become experts about balance-beam scoring, dives with somersaults and one-and-a-half twists, and the level of splash permissible upon entry into the water from a ridiculous height.

Olympics-Logo-NBC-jpgBy the second week of the Summer Olympics, if tradition holds, the action shifts more heavily to track and field — more traditional, male-oriented sports than the frontloaded diving, swimming and gymnastics — and a certain fatigue begins to set in.

As more than one observer has noted, the Olympics aren’t really a sporting event, which is why the whole delayed-viewing issue is a major distraction. They’re a variety/reality show, gleaning drama from the hopes and dreams of the chiseled young participants. In that context, NBC’s critics aren’t wrong, necessarily, but they’re poor students of history, and sound hopelessly naive.

What really makes the whole formula work — in terms of ratings, which is understandably all NBC cares about, and the network’s prophyllactic against any and all criticism of its coverage — is attracting people who for the most part aren’t big sports fans. And especially once gymnastics starts winding down (a sports whose popularity crosses boundaries, including gender), some of those fans inevitably start drifting back toward their lives, or whatever else is on.

The Oympics are already a huge success for NBC, and they’ll do just fine all the way to the finish line.

But my guess is after tonight’s women’s gymnastics individual apparatus finals, the main thrust of the Games is behind us. And in today’s hyperactive age — where the media metabolism burns brighter and faster — the glow from that Olympic torch will be in the rear-view mirror almost as fast as Michael Phelps in the pool or Usain Bolt on the track.

So in terms of NBC enjoying any kind of halo effect, as I predicted before the Olympics, my guess is not much. That said, nobody knows for certain, which, as sports announcers like to say, is why they play the games.

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