The Mercy Rule

Fs All Around

By David Roth

If the internet were a person, that person would be unbearable. He—and it would be a he—would, for one thing, be masturbating furiously, constantly. He would grab incessantly and shamelessly at your wallet, and he would yell at all times. "PERSONAL TRAINERS HATE HER," the internet would scream at you, masturbating to beat the band with one hand and trying to steal your credit cards with the other, "MOM IN YOUR AREA HAS ONE SIMPLE TRICK FOR A FLAT STOMACH." When the internet-as-person was not trying to gull you with fake car-insurance rates and depressing/fraudulent student-loan grants and free iPads, he would be bravely bellowing incoherent racist un-thoughts or trying to shout you into some sour Paultardian misperception of how the world works. Mostly, though, the internet would be complaining. If you had the poor fortune to meet the internet over the last two weeks, it would be complaining about the way that NBC has covered the London Olympics, with many of those complaints bunched under the Twitter hashtag #NBCFAIL.

Internet-as-person would be right, because NBC has indeed sucked in a not-quite-new but decidedly giddy-stupid and cynical way throughout these Olympics. The actual sports that NBC puts on television are, of course, great, provided you're into watching sports. And given how foreign many Olympic sports can seem, NBC's actual televised sports coverage has been pretty solid. There may not be a way to make field hockey—tiny-looking people with sticks at great distances from each other on a vast blue field—look like anything but an early-days video game. Fencing, which seems like it could be weirdly good television, really isn't, and is even more Nintendo-fied than field hockey, right down to the side-to-side gameplay and 8-bit Tron-ish light-up helmets. None of that is NBC's fault, or means that the network was wrong to put those sports on the air. There has been something reassuring about the certainty that, somewhere on cable at most any hour of the day over the past couple weeks, there is a weightlifter grunting, a female archer in a floppy hat squinting, water polo bros trying to drown each other, and some Hungarian furiously paddling a canoe. Sometimes this is televised live, most times it isn't, and it is always bracingly strange in a very Olympics way. No one is complaining about any of that, really, except for the squeakers who dedicate themselves to determining what is and isn't Even A Fucking Sport. No one pays attention to those people, or should.

The part worth complaining about is NBC's prime time broadcast, which is never live and always terrible. What's terrible about it, though, has much more to do with the network's determination to pitch those five hours at the emotional and intellectual level of an unusually jingoistic episode of the Today Show, and to shift the emphasis from sports to syrup-powered uplift stories about American athletes and hours of fluffy television types riffing limply on a studio set. This means montages and Coldplay backing tracks. It means Ryan Seacrest's vast and taut-faced inauthenticity and the Mountain Dew-brained un-insights of deflated Carrot Top and X-treme athlete Shaun White. It means so, so much Bob Costas and Mary Carillo reiterating the same three points about the same four athletes for two freaking weeks.

And mostly it has meant very little actual sports have interrupted all that terrible, terrible television. And all of this is terrible—there is no sufficient way to describe White's voice or the feeling of watching Seacrest's marzipan-robot smile lock into place that doesn't involve a comparison to war or famine—and all of this is not new. It's bad, but it's also bad by design: NBC Sports chair Dick Ebersol is trying to make what he calls "family television," which means a greater emphasis on things that horrible and purely notional moms enjoy than on the actual sporting events that actually comprise the actual Olympics.

Complaints about the events not being live are reasonable in some instances; of the two billion people on Earth who saw Usain Bolt win gold in the 100 meters as it happened on Sunday afternoon, none of them saw it on NBC, or streaming it through NBC's supremely janky web video service. But for the most part complaints about NBC's inability to bend the laws of space and time to better suit one's personal viewing habits are the purest and most entitled comment-section derpery, and just not very good complaints.

It's also not anything that any other network or entity could do differently. Fox would be incalculably worse: the Fox NFL Robot would be hosting a nightly recap show with Sean Hannity; Tim McCarver would be punning obliviously about teamwork during gymnastics competitions; a digital waving American flag would be superimposed over athletes from all other nations. ESPN's coverage would consist entirely of four drunk sportswriters arguing on split-screen about whether Tim Tebow is more clutch than Michael Phelps. When goofus internet futurist Jeff Jarvis waxed futuristically goofy about how things could be otherwise—"I ask you to imagine what Olympics coverage would look like if Google had acquired the rights," he wrote, "It would give us what we want and make billions, I’ll bet."—he was even wronger than usual. Google would store information about your viewing preferences and then serve you ads about judo and dressage forever. There may, in short, not be a better way to televise the Olympics; the BBC certainly seems to be doing a better job, but also gets to broadcast everything live and without commercials or the threat of Shaun White popping up and saying "So pitted, totally pitted" or something.

It would be nice, of course, if Olympics coverage spent less time in the deafeningly dumb Seacrestorium of "family television" and more time on actual sports. It would be nice to be pandered to less, and with less palpable disrespect for viewers' intelligence. But given the way that network television is—giddy, dumb, fat and fatuous and unburdened by any esteem at all for its audience—we're getting the only Olympics we could reasonably have expected. What the internet has contributed to the Olympic experience so far, besides a bunch of slow-buffering video, is finally just this: a hashtag that reminds us that there are things less appealing than a tape-delayed track meet, and that one of those is people bitching about a tape-delayed track meet.

@David_J_Roth

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