Saturday, August 16, 2008

Why We Love the Olympics

Given the national zeitgeist, I am almost compelled to explore another aspect of the Olympics this week. Even before the initial TV ratings were released earlier this week, I noticed anecdotal evidence that interest in the Games were up. (Anybody notice that everybody's Facebook status last week had something to do with the Olympics?)

I recently read a newspaper column which listed possible reasons for the upswing in ratings, and I was pleased to see that they basically matched my list: The Phelps factor, the increase in live events on NBC, and the increase in breadth of coverage on NBC. I remember being incredibly frustrated in 2004 that America was shut out of on-line streaming of events (due to NBC's decision not to exercise their exclusive rights). This time around, that has been rectified.

Although I haven't encountered anyone else who has watched an entire Team USA baseball game on the computer (and I think NBC could do a little bit more to promote their on-line streams), I think the coverage options offered by NBC, their cable networks, and their website, have succeeded in raising interest in the Olympics by managing to tap into two opposite trends in American culture.

First, Olympic coverage is perfect for the "channel surfing" or "A.D.D." aspect of American consumption. We don't even have to channel surf from sport to sport-- they do it for us! It has been exhilarating at times to go from live gymnastics to the aquatic center for swimming to the beach for volleyball and back. Many of the events don't require huge time or intellectual investments. The Michael Phelps races only demand a couple of minutes of emotional investment, and not a whole lot of depth of understanding. Yes, the dolphin kick is something that can be analyzed, but ultimately it's relatively mindless to sit there and watch who is swimming faster. And the gymnastics competitions "channel surf" themselves: a couple minutes on floor exercise, over to vault, over to beam, and back. Throw in a few Bob Costas interviews to decompress between the minutes of intensity and NBC has stumbled onto a winning formula.

Yet at the same time Americans have been conditioned to flit from one stimulation to another, we have evolved in our demands as to what I call a "suitable portion." Much has been made of the increase in restaurant food portions over the years (and corresponding growth in waistlines), but this is indicative of the American cliche of "more bang for your buck." I can't help but notice that the run time for concerts from the 1960s and 70s on are significantly less than would be expected by concert-goers today (Springsteen shows notwithstanding). The highest grossing film of the 1990s (Titanic) is about 70 minutes longer than the highest grossing film of the 1970s (the original Star Wars). With NBC upping their total coverage from a then-record 1210 hours of coverage in 2004 to 3600 hours this year, we finally have supply to meet our prodigious demands.

When you consider that there are 10,500 athletes competing in 302 events in 28 sports, spread out in such a way that we can channel surf among them, there is little wonder we have a cultural phenomenon.


Post a Comment

<< Home