Faster, higher, stronger, soapier

Forget Olympic medals in Atlanta: in US TV's Patriot Games the battle is for women viewers, writes John Carlin

A keen-eyed Washington Post columnist observed on the day after the opening ceremony of the Atlanta Games that the red cauldron containing the Olympic flame looked like a carton of McDonald's French fries.

Since McDonald's is one of the big corporations that coughed up $40m for the privilege of being named as official sponsors of the Games, it might not be out of the question to suggest that the effect was fully intended.

Either way, the image set the tone for American TV's coverage of the Olympics, an exercise in which it rapidly emerged that the sport was incidental and advertising was the main event. This much was to be expected. The relentless commercial breaks actually proved to be the least of the afflictions endured during what turned out to be the NBC equivalent of death by a thousand pin-pricks. After you've been living in America for a while the mind evolves its own powers of resistance. The torment doesn't go away, but you learn to numb the pain.

You even adapt, after the initial amazement, to the patriotic overkill of the coverage. It's been possible to reason that the same thing has been going on in all the other countries where the Games are being broadcast, only here it's bigger, crasser, more childishly blunt. By a leap of the imagination, it's also been possible to remind yourself that the US has not been the only country competing in the Atlanta Olympics, and that American athletes have not been the only ones winning medals.

One incident of the NBC Patriot Games did stand out, however, and tested the limits of the non-American viewer's self-control. It was a race won, fascinatingly, by a Syrian woman in shorts. We never got to see her crossing the finishing line for gold. We did not even see the foreigner who came in second. The cameras were locked on a battle for fifth place involving the solitary American in the field.

But what has been most interesting about NBC's coverage of the Olympics, more unique than the shameless flag-waving, is that it has set a completely new standard for TV sports coverage. The NBC people did their market research and came to the conclusion that in order to capture the biggest share of viewers, and thereby maximise the prices charged to advertisers, they should cover the Olympics not as sport but as soap opera. The reason being that since the male viewers were in the bag already, what they had to do was lure the females - who, NBC surveys show, are the ones who wear the trousers when it comes to going out and buying the advertisers' supermarket goodies.

It worked. Not only have more than twice as many US viewers watched the Atlanta Olympics than the Barcelona Olympics four years ago; this time more women have been watching than men. Last Monday night NBC estimated its total audience at 103.1 million people.

NBC's brilliantly successful strategy was to focus first and foremost on the human drama that lay behind the Games. Thus less air-time was dedicated to the sports themselves than to soft focus, piano-tinkling portraits of the competitors. Five-minute pre-race mini-movies telling you how athlete A overcame the loss of her beloved grandad to qualify for the synchronised swimming finals; describing the intimacies of athlete B's relationship with her teddy bear; solemnly relating athlete C's battle with asthma and with a dad who wanted him to study medicine but finally came around, persuaded to share in the boy's Olympic gold-lust. NBC has broadcast more than 140 of these fluffy tear-jerkers during the past two weeks, often showing the same one two, three or four times.

Here is the usual sequence of an NBC Olympic event: the studio presenter says: "Up next, the women's 100 metres final". This means NBC is cutting to four minutes of commercials. Then it's: "We're back with the women's 100 metres final," whereupon you get your box of Kleenex handy and sit back to watch a five-minute biography of the local Atlanta Amazon who overcame heartbreak in Barcelona, who found time between training to give birth to a child (cut to sensitively shot scene of Amazon in civvies hugging toddler) before qualifying heroically (rhapsody of a thousand violins/shot of Amazon in profile, staring winsomely into the distance) for a chance to fulfill her childhood dream of Olympic gold. After that it's another commercial break; the 11-second blur of the race itself; and half-a-dozen slow motion replays from half-a-dozen different angles should it happen that an American won; or a burst of musical highlights from the previous night's US victory in the baseball against Italy should a foreigner have won, before cutting back to the studio and another round of commercials.

The idea is to persuade you to identify with the US competitors in the same way that you identify with Rocky I, II, III and IV. Overcoming adversity: that's the narrative formula every time. Every single time.

Sooner or later everything in America seems to come back to the Land of Opportunity myth, also known as the American dream. You battle, you struggle, you work hard, you take on impossible odds and yes, you will get your just reward. You will become famous and rich. For, of course, winning gold means precisely that - the multi-million dollar endorsements, the ludicrously well-paid dinner engagements.

Watching the drama unfold with this satisfying predictability makes Americans feel good. Which is exactly how NBC wants them to feel so that they'll go out after the show and buy lots of big bottles of carpet stain remover. Usually things go according to the script. The Americans, as we all know, have been mopping up the medals. Sometimes, very occasionally, calamity strikes. Such as in the case of Tonya Buford Bailey, a 400-metre hurdler whose little sister, we learnt before the race, suffers from muscular dystrophy but it's OK because, as Tonya tells us: "She gave me her energy." Tonya had broken all kinds of records but, to the confusion of the ecstasy- programmed NBC commentators, some Jamaican went and spoilt it all by winning the race.

The most covered Olympic event on NBC, the one that best fit the melodrama bill, was the women's gymnastics. Plenty of golds, plenty of all-American pixies, and the portrait in courage of Team USA's Kerri Strug beating the Russians with a broken leg (or a sprain at any rate) and then turning up in an ankle-to-knee cast for the victory ceremony. They've shown so much women's gymnastics, in fact, that in the past week we've actually had the odd sighting of a pirouetting Ukrainian nymphet.

Which prompted the following outburst from an irate male caller to a radio talk show at midnight on Monday, after NBC failed to cover live what was arguably the most remarkable sporting moment of the Atlanta Games: Carl Lewis winning his ninth gold medal in the final of the long jump. "NBC sucks, man," the caller said. "Really sucks! I have no words to describe my disgust for NBC. I mean, there's Carl Lewis making Olympic history and what do we get to watch instead? Ukrainian babies falling off wooden beams!"

Many American men feel the same way. One US sports magazine complained that NBC had reduced the Games to "the Oprah Olympics". In a letter to the Los Angeles Times a man asked: "Is this the Olympics or This is Your Life?"

Never mind the sport, feel the entertainment. It is a terrible thing for American men to acknowledge, but women TV viewers have hijacked the Olympics. And, since NBC has spent $4bn for the rights to cover them all the way through to the year 2008, women look set to hold on to them for a while yet. Unless, of course, men pick up the baton of supermarket duty.

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