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Finding the Pulse of Athletic Human Drama (page 4)

NBC Presents Melodrama for Dummies

The two most genuinely enjoyable melodramatic moments of the Atlanta Olympics happened almost despite NBC’s efforts. In the first case, Kerri Strug, who labored in the shadow of fellow gymnasts Dominique Moceanu, Shannon Miller, and Dominique Dawes, provided an unexpected "real" moment during the gymnastic competition. The quiet 18-year-old injured her leg on her first vault and landed cleanly on her second vault despite intense pain, clinching the gold medal for her entire American team.

Kerri Strug lands cleanly despite intense pain.

Kerri Strug and her coach.

Her unplanned story came to illustrate the "heroism" that "the Olympics were really about," according to NBC. The network then played catch-up, quickly gathering shots of Strug’s parents and archival home-video images to produce a 14-minute documentary on the life of Kerri Strug, which ran two days later. In the second case, American speedster Michael Johnson handily won both the 200 and 400 meter sprints, living up to the incredible pressure of the media hype and the flamboyance of his shiny golden running shoes.

The Strug and Johnson stories demonstrate how the most pleasurable stories are often "natural" surprises and the least pleasurable ones are those that are so processed and packaged that they are sickeningly sweet. Technically, the NBC presentation of the Olympics was brilliant. Video package profiles of athletes had been prepared months before, almost every angle of televised events was covered (although many events lacked significant coverage), and all of the characters (including select coaches) were miked as supporting players. Such technical thoroughness, though, rarely gave Olympic viewers the pleasure of "gap-filling," the reading function where we use our imagination to complete the story. Too often, NBC was there (usually by tape delay, so they could overlay additional melodramatic timing and narration) to tell us exactly how we should interpret the story.

NBC’s commitment to single-mindedly exploiting one melodramatic narrative for each event (leading to what we call excessive melodrama) caused a great number of miscalculations on NBC’s part, and disappointments and frustrations for the viewer. Olympic athletes were typecast as tightly as WWF Wrestling stars, but unlike television wrestling, Olympic favorites don’t always win. Janet Evans, for example, finished 6th in her last Olympic race, while younger American Brooke Bennett finished far ahead all others in the 800-meter match. Nevertheless, NBC seemed unable to adapt to the new story that Bennett’s win imposed. Instead of discussing Bennett’s gold-medal performance, the announcer voice-over as the swimmers exited the pool was "I’m wondering what’s going on in Janet’s head. I’m wondering if she can get over this and realize that Americans are cheering for her no matter what." One of the first questions posed to Bennett after the race was "What are your thoughts on being one of the last people to race with Janet Evans and winning the race?" Bennett responded with tears and a quavering voice that she had dedicated the race to her recently deceased grandfather. NBC then quickly and coldly turned their cameras to Evans for a several-minute interview, as Bennett was left to walk away in the background.

Brooke Bennett dedicates her race to her recently-deceased grandfather . . .

. . . and then Janet Evans takes the spotlight.

In gymnastics, Vitaly Scherbo didn’t perform up to expectations, as better conditioned athletes won the first two places. The NBC narrative had promised that Scherbo would win gold for his recovered wife; a bronze tagged Scherbo a loser in NBC’s melodrama. In track and field, the Gail Devers-Gwen Torrence "catfight" proved to be a phony melodramatic narrative. The teammates graciously hugged after Devers finished first and Torrence third in the 100 meters.

Gail Devers and Gwen Torrence hug after the 100 meters final . . .

. . . and then bow in unison.

Other athletes turned in superb performances, but won few notices. American decathlete Dan O’Brien, who had a miserable performance and a failed Reebok "Dan and Dave" ad campaign in the 1992 Olympics turned in a record-breaking gold medal performance in Atlanta. Yet, his coverage was almost nil, especially in comparison to the glory heaped on Bruce Jenner, America’s decathlon winner in 1976. Amy Van Dyken won four gold medals in swimming for the U.S., but NBC, which had invested so much narrative effort in the Janet Evans story, took interest in Van Dyken only belatedly. Of course, David Rouse, the American backstroker without a melodramatic hitch, did win a gold medal. We haven’t heard of him since.

Ultimately, the NBC coverage was unspontaneous and claustrophobic. American viewers were served "melodrama for dummies." Many stories were hyped to the maximum, only to sap all of our imagination or become frustrating dead ends. Conflicts were inflated, only to be later revealed as puffery. And many of the stories — the Olympic melodramas viewers expected to find — didn’t find their way into NBC’s plans. Still, American viewers, especially those without satellite dishes or access to border television, had little choice. If one wanted to watch the Olympics, they had to get NBC’s version of brilliant triumphs and inspiring struggles. And NBC was very fortunate.

Christopher R. Martin and Bettina Fabos teach in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Northern Iowa.

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