Bernstein: Will Rio Olympics Be Reality TV?

By Dan Bernstein

NBC admits that something might not be quite right about their massive temporary studio, but we’re being told not to worry. Their sports people will bring us the sports, and their news people will be ready to report anything else that may arise.

That’s the gist of the company line regarding the uncertain production of the Olympics in Rio, that the network is aware of the underlying stories of crime, filth and perilous infrastructure, but won’t let any of it interfere with the coverage of the games.

What this means is a couple sentences from Bob Costas in his serious voice during one of the introductory pieces, and then hope from NBC executives and advertisers that they can hold real life at bay for two weeks.

Gauzy profiles of inspirational athletes are hard enough to take on their own, without their juxtaposition with sailboats racing among discarded appliances in a sea of human waste. There’s little reason to care about a canned backstory when that athlete is now infected with flesh-eating super-bacteria. It’s hard to appreciate who’s on the medal stand while a nearby train station is collapsing. This will be a test of coverage for NBC, but only if the games themselves are actually affected.

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The broadcast will create a protective bubble, just as others successfully have in previous years. And it would take something live and obvious to burst that bubble. The host city will only be a backdrop for soaring, idealized establishment shots over the swelling fanfare of trumpets. We will see Rio as lush, energetic and exotic, in to and out of commercial breaks.

That’s what they bet we want as viewers, however many there may be. Anyone watching already has to feel a little dirty taking part in the nefarious enterprise of graft, corruption and rampant human-rights violations perpetrated by IOC plutocrats and venal government officials. So if that’s baked in, they needn’t worry about something else uncomfortable breaking the deal.

Tape delay on many events will put time on their side, which could create some difficult decisions. If a boat snags a floating corpse, will that be shown in prime time or merely edited out and handed off to the news folks? NBC could then claim plausibly to have covered the incident without including it in the sports spectacle. It then becomes a shell game, with any potential distraction not rising up to the level of major news boiled down to a mere mention on MSNBC. A security incident in the stands or just outside on the street, a mass protest by outraged citizens or a problem with venue construction impeding competition could be minimized during the important hours.

Many of us are now in the habit of combining social media with sports viewing in real time. So NBC will be aware of appearing disconnected or uncaring if a striking disparity exists between what we’re seeing on different screens. Nothing can be truly covered up, only prioritized differently.

The smart play is probably to assume that anybody tuning in to watch sports isn’t going to tune out because he or she feels the whole truth of the games isn’t being told. It never has been, and won’t now begin to be. The Olympics are entirely a distraction in and of themselves, even as contextualized on the world stage.

NBC is prepared to give us what we really want, which is always something better and easier than what actually is.

Dan Bernstein is senior columnist on CBS Chicago and co-host of “Boers & Bernstein” on Chicago’s 670 The Score.

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