Cord Cutting and the Olympics

First, a disclaimer. This might just be me. I’m basing my conclusions here on my own personal experiences, and there’s always a good chance that the slice of life I’m seeing is different from what’s happening across the country as a whole. But I’ve had enough discussions with friends around me that I’m at least reasonably sure of my observations.

As I’ve said before, I’m a bit of an Olympics junkie. I have always loved watching them each year, and I look forward to seeing what new cool things happen as the Games roll around. I remember talking about them with my friends in high school and in college. Everybody seemed to have been watching them along with me.

But not this year. This year, when I ask people if they’re watching the Olympics, a lot of them aren’t. For many of them, they can’t figure out a way to see them. They’ve cut cable or satellite from their homes, and the streaming options leave them scratching their heads about how exactly they can watch this thing they’ve always enjoyed. I don’t blame them. Watching live television in the more remote parts of the country is not for the faint of heart, if you don’t pay for a television subscription. You need to navigate sign ins, download the right apps, and make sure the Internet Gods are smiling on you.

Even then, the experience leaves some to be desired. The ads they play on the streaming  platforms are just plain exhausting. I know you’ll get a couple repeat ads when you watch over the air, but streaming shows you the same ads, time after time after time. It’s annoying when you’re watching something for an evening, but when you’re watching for two weeks in a row? I literally want to not buy whatever is being sold, just out of spite. It’s making me actively hate Coke, that DNA test, and Ritz crackers. DC has memorized the ads and can recite them with all the correct timing.

Of course, there are some things I really like about streaming. I love being able to watch whatever I want on demand. There’s a huge breadth of events available to me, and that’s wonderful. We watched many of the complete biathlon events where Slovakia medaled, and I’ve discovered I really love that sport. It’s a ton of fun to watch. NBC typically reduces cross country to a few overview snippets.

But I’m able to do all that because my internet-fu is strong. It’s not like that for everyone, and that means the Olympics aren’t getting the buzz they always have before. True, social media lets me connect with others who are watching, but it doesn’t feel like one of those “The World is Watching” events, and that makes me sad and nostalgic for how it was before.

This seems like a problem that can and should be fixed. If it were up to me, each of the main broadcasting networks would carry their live programming over the internet for free, without any logins. They could identify where you’re watching based on IP address, and then show you the same commercials you’d see locally. Or at the least they could show you the same local news. This is programming that’s broadcast over the air for free anyway. It’s just in the hinterlands that you can’t get it. Am I missing some vital reason that invalidates this plan?

Beyond that, I’ve noticed one other thing I’d like to comment on. People online seem to love to gripe about NBC’s coverage of the Olympics. “They won’t shut up during important times!” “They’re boring.” “They make it too much about Americans.”

I get it. There are times I’m frustrated by the same things. But I’ve watched the Olympics without the commentary, and I’m here to say that I believe that commentary is vital for the Games to be captivating. It loses a lot of the impact when you don’t know about who is competing. Last night is an excellent example. The duel between the two Russian skaters (sorry, Olympic athletes from Russia) was very well introduced. Because of all the promos and spotlights they did on those two girls, I was much more heavily invested in the outcome. When I watch the streams that just have basic “this is what they’re doing” commentary, I lose that connection. “Huh. Look. Some guy just did some move that has a strange name. I wonder if that’s difficult. I wonder if I should be impressed.”

If I were to watch one of those ice skating events live? I’d be completely lost, and (I think) bored out of my mind. I have no idea who did a double or a triple or a quad or an axel or a whatever. I need the commentary to make sense of it. Yes, I get that if you’re a big fan of the sport already, then you probably don’t need it, but let’s face it: the majority of the US don’t care about skiing, skating, curling, and all that jazz when it’s not the Olympics. We need the context.

And the Opening Ceremonies? Even that needs context, I believe. Sure, they skip some of it. But they let you watch the whole thing after the fact if you want, without or without commentary. How many people actually go back to do that? The Opening Ceremonies allow the broadcasters to set the stage. Let us know some interesting story lines to follow. And true, there are times I wish they’d branch out beyond American story lines more. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want stories.

So while I get some criticism of NBC, I think a fair bit of it is unwarranted groupthink, as people band together online to complain about something and then carry the complaints they’ve read out into the real world, repeating them as if they’re now experts in sports broadcasting. It gets a bit old.

Anyway. The Olympics are almost over, and I’ve really had a good time watching them. I’ll miss them when they’re gone, but I’m looking forward to being able to get more sleep at night. There’s always that . . .


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