From Pyeongchang to your TV: more figure skating!

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Pyeongchang TV coverage

Photo: / Korean Culture and Information Service (Jeon Han)
Alpensia Resort is where the outdoor events of this year’s Winter Games were held.

Michael Kleiner
The Norwegian American

The Olympics is a mammoth project for the media, especially television—knowing what events to cover, finding human-interest stories, choosing when to switch coverage to a different event and who to interview, maintaining the medal count, and more. The recent Olympiad in Pyeong­chang, South Korea, was further complicated by the 14-hour time difference from America’s East Coast, 17 from the West Coast, eight hours from Norway. When I was waking up in the morning in Philadelphia, my newspaper was already behind.

It is risky to criticize American TV coverage for bias, when every country’s coverage was going to emphasize its own best athletes. Even in The Norwegian American we had to choose which American and Norwegian contenders and sports to include and exclude. Did the U.S. really have a chance in ski jumping, Nordic combined, and curling? Well, we blew it on men’s curling—as did many.

Part of the problem with the time difference was that we sat down on a Monday night expecting to watch Monday’s events, but in the interest of showing live events, NBC was showing Tuesday’s action. On the morning of Monday, Feb. 19, I saw that Norway had won the team large-hill ski jump and Håvard Lorentzen had set a record winning the 500 meter speed skating. I looked forward to watching that night, but NBC had moved on without mentioning or showing these two events.

Michael Brady, one of our correspondents in Oslo, said that the Norwegian Olympic coverage was provided through private entities, Eurosport and TV Norge, both owned by Discovery Networks. If one was not a subscriber, they did not see any live coverage of the Olympics. According to a Wikipedia entry on a Norwegian page on the Olympics, the events were staffed with Norwegian reporters, commentators, and experts, some of whom had been champion athletes in those events. The number staffed at the disciplines gives a peek at emphasis that a sport was given.

Here, we had NBC, which broadcast during prime time and sometimes in the afternoon; NBC Sports Network, which aired most of the middle-of-the-night, early-morning, and early-afternoon competitions, NBCSN app, and Olympic Channel, which broadcast medal ceremonies from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m., EST. Theoretically, we had 24-hour coverage.

I still have legitimate complaints about some of the NBC coverage. I am an American with an affinity for Norway that began when I spent a year in Norway when I was 11 and was exposed to sports like cross-country skiing, ski jumping, and speed skating. I stood on the ice at Bislett watching the world championships and walked to see Holmenkollen. Every four years, the Olympics gives me another chance to see those sports again and root for two countries.

Coverage is often determined by what is believed to be of interest to the majority of the audience and our best chances for medals. Jo Christian Weldingh wrote from Oslo: “The coverage was concentrated on the sports we’re traditionally good at, but since there was around-the-clock coverage on two channels, TV Norge and Eurosport, I think they were able to cover most sports. TV Norge also covered the Olympics via their app. The sports itself ran from roughly 2 a.m. to 3 p.m., and then reruns… And then, in the evening, a talk show where they talked about everything that happened in the Olympics that day.”

My first complaint with NBC’s version is the oversaturation of figure skating. Figure skating was scheduled on 10 of the 15 Olympic days. While other sports may have matched that, the amount of prime-time coverage wasn’t the same. In the Feb. 27 Philadelphia Inquirer, columnist Bob Ford wrote about the disappointment of the United States’ haul of 23 medals while criticizing the IOC and USOC: “Alpine and figure-skating events form the backbone of the Winter Games…”

No, the Olympics comprise 15 disciplines, many with subdisciplines, performed by athletes from 92 countries, not two events performed by a fraction of athletes from a fraction of countries. Those are just the sports American media expect Americans to do well in. As Ford points out, Americans won three medals in Alpine, none by the men, and two in figure skating, and had its lowest overall total since 1998. The anticipation each night was Johnny Weir’s hairstyle and clothing (Ford stole my line), and whether he and Tara Lipinski would be holding glittered microphones and wearing bejeweled headsets. Snowboarding and freestyle events secured most of the American hardware. Norway didn’t have a figure skater at the Olympics and won the most medals.

So, if the results aren’t going so well for your side, how about switching to sports where Americans or other athletes are not only doing well but setting records? The U.S. men winning curling gold was a good example of this, and interviewing them in the studio was proper, but doing so twice in the space of a couple hours? If the U.S. had not made the final, we would not have seen the curling championship, nor would many Americans have watched it. The Olympics is an opportunity to watch sports we don’t usually see.

Netherlands won 16 of its 20 medals in speed skating, including a sweep in one event. Records were set in these events, but we saw little of speed skating. In Norway all the pairs were shown—as well as the figure skating.

What about the country that was running away with the medal count with a record 39 medals? Maybe I missed it, but I didn’t hear NBC mention Norway setting a medal record. While there was a feature on the Alpine Vikings, there was nothing about Marit Bjørgen breaking the individual medal record that had been held by two of her compatriots, both of whom were quoted in the Norwegian press sending warm congratulations?

Why is American TV afraid of showing an entire cross-country race? Because, they say, no American wants to watch a two- to three-hour ski race. Yet we watch three hours of football and baseball. I like baseball, but is more action really happening in a three-hour baseball game than in a three-hour cross-country race? Maybe Jessica Diggins and Kikkan Randall winning American women’s first cross-country medal will change that.

Back in the studio, there was an interview with Ester Ledecká of the Czech Republic, the first athlete to win gold in two separate sports. There’s nothing wrong with that, but why no interview with the all-time winningest Winter Olympian, who won five medals at age 37? When they showed the collage of highlights of the Olympics, the only Norwegian shown was Simen Hegstad Krüger falling down and winning the skiathlon, which admittedly will become legend. But surely so will Bjørgen.

To be fair, there were articles in major American newspapers and on CNN about Norway and Bjørgen’s unparalleled success.

Another Olympics passes with criticism of NBC’s coverage. The photography was great, though. Two years before Tokyo, four to Beijing. Maybe things will change—or maybe the figure skaters just have four years to improve.

This article originally appeared in the March 9, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.