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Despite spoilers, excess and wobbly NBC reporting, we just can’t resist the Olympics

By David Hiltbrand, The Philadelphia Inquirer –

I am, like many people, I suspect, an Olympics hostage.

Whenever the Games approach, summer or winter, I resolve that this time I will not get so caught up in the coverage. The truth is, I’m not sure some of these “sports” even really qualify as spectator events. 10-meter air rifle? Synchronized swimming?

But then something invariably happens. After all the hype about Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, it’s an elegant Chinese swimmer named Sun Yang you can’t take your eyes off.

A 17-year-old gymnast I’ve never heard of misses qualifying for the individual all-around event by fractions of a point and her heartbreak is palpable. Late Sunday night, former U.S. coach Béla Károlyi rails about the injustice of it to Bob Costas in the NBC studio. I understand very little of what Károlyi is saying, but I agree with every word. And that’s why the Olympics are so cool. Sports is an international language.

Certainly, the world has changed since the Beijing Summer Games. It’s now commonplace to see tattoos on all kinds of athletes. And — tweet, tweet — we will bitterly complain about anything you put on TV.

Yet the Olympics remain a uniquely compelling spectacle. That combination of circumstances is giving London in its early days the curious distinction of being the most-vilified and the most-watched Summer Games ever.

NBC averaged 35.8 million viewers for the first three nights of the London Olympics, the highest opening weekend for a Summer Games since they were first telecast from Rome in 1960. The audience for Sunday night and for the opening ceremonies was larger than any night of the Beijing Olympics.

What don’t we like? Let’s start with director Danny Boyle’s “Isles of Wonder” cauldron of excess. He dragged us through British history from pastoral fantasia to digital rave with an odd assortment of cameos — Kenneth Branagh to Michael Oldfield. (Yes, the composer of “Tubular Bells.”)

Even supplied with copious footnotes, NBC commentators Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira couldn’t begin to explain what Oldfield was doing there. (Wasn’t the drafting of Vieira for this high-profile job a tacit acknowledgment that Savannah Guthrie is not the simpatica partner for Lauer that “Today” was hoping for?)

The funniest line came during the smoggy Industrial Revolution segment when Lauer informed us, “They have found a way to pump that smoke, that sulfur smell, that factory smell out to the 65,000-plus people in attendance.” Oh, those lucky ticketholders!

Things got madly mercenary from there, including a tribute to British children’s authors that looked like a Pink Floyd concert, and a parachute jump by a stuntman in a pink worsted skirt. When Paul McCartney came out at the end, I expected him to debut the theme song from the James Bond film “Skyfall,” a trailer for which ran during the opening ceremonies.

The big medal winner at these games should be advertisers. Again and again, they have done brilliant jobs of getting their Olympic-themed ads in adjacency to just the right event. Like Jennifer Kessy in a tiny black bikini, slamming a ball and applying lip color for CoverGirl, between sets of a beach volleyball match at Horse Guards Parade. Madison Avenue brought its A-game — for instance, the spot for Omega watches that featured a catchy remix of the Stones’ “Start Me Up.”

I’m still trying to understand how McDonald’s can be “the official restaurant of the Olympics.” I didn’t know it was a restaurant.

NBC hauled in more than $1 billion in advertising revenue, a record accomplished in no small part by holding the glamour events for prime time when viewership and rates are highest.

That has been standard network procedure in the television era — when the Games are held in European countries, marquee events like swimming, gymnastics, and track will be showcased in prime time, but taped.

In our increasingly fast-twitch times, when instantly isn’t quite fast enough, NBC’s taping policy has been met with unprecedented (and rather hysterical) outrage. A mob of angry critics has been hammering the network for not airing the competitions live.

One cynical tweeter, on the grouse-site #NBCFail, wrote: “Ryan Lochte could cure cancer during a race & NBC would air it 6 hours later with the cure portion removed for a (Ryan) Seacrest interview.” Ouch.

The world has shrunk so much that it takes a good deal of willful avoidance these days to stay unaware of results for several hours, even when they happen on another continent. If you want to watch a race unspoiled in prime time, you have to go through most of the day with blinders.

Literally, if you’re watching NBC Nightly News. At some point, Brian Williams will warn you to cover your eyes or turn away from the set while he shows the day’s results on mute. Then he’ll tell you it’s safe to resume watching.

The template for Olympic coverage was perfected years ago by visionary producers such as Roone Arledge and Dick Ebersole. In London, NBC is adding some visual brio with augmented camera shots and better-looking and more efficient graphics.

The network’s main announcing troika — Bob Costas, Al Michaels and Dan Patrick — are sturdy, its reporters less so (although I must admit, Seacrest has not been the disaster I assumed he would be in an athletic arena). A few of their announcers have stood out as more than capable, including Al Trautwig and, over on NBC Sports Network, host Michelle Beadle.

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