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The Winter Olympics: Too Real for Reality TV?

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Message Elliot Hannon
The Winter Olympics: Too Real for Reality TV?

It’s now official; reality cannot compete with reality TV. Just take a look at the just completed Winter Olympics in Turin. Nobody watched. There are a number of reasons that get punted around, but let’s get real, it’s not Bode Miller’s fault or Michelle Kwan’s, nor is it the Internet or time difference that sabotaged NBC’s coverage. We simply already get our rags to riches to rags again tales nightly with Survivor, American Idol and Real World. Who needs the Olympics? Who needs real reality, when we already have genetically modified reality TV?

Reality TV is simply a more hyperactive, more potent, more addictive version of the Olympics. This is particularly deadly for the Winter Olympics because the background stories are the only reason to watch. If you don’t understand or have never participated in the event that you’re watching, you’d better care about the participants; otherwise it’s just an afternoon billiards tournament in Vegas on ESPN.

There are several reasons that made this Winter Olympics less than compelling reality TV. The cardinal rule of reality programming is that the participants must be put in a situation where their entire life seemingly hinges on the outcome of the contest or the reward must be so staggeringly life changing that we can’t avert our eyes from the impending emotional train wreck.

Disobey the First Commandment and beware, cancellation is imminent. The Winter Olympics broke this rule because it’s undergoing an identity crisis of adolescent proportions.

This crisis stems from the evolution of the Winter Games to include hip sports, like every single event involving a snowboard. While potentially broadening the viewer demographics, these events and often the Olympians that participate in them threaten the raison d’etre of the Games. Injecting these sports into the Olympic experience helps the hip factor, but it dilutes the reality TV potency of the Games by robbing the Olympics of their aura of a high stakes athletic reckoning between individuals, nations, societies, even philosophies and values.

For example, watching the Men’s Speed Skating Team Pursuit race final at the mid-point of these Games, as the Canadian and Italian teams came into the final laps of their race for the gold, the NBC commentator offered a revealing insight into the Olympic crisis. He assessed the Canadian chances of making up a two second deficit saying something to the effect of: The Canadians should be at an advantage here because they actually spend time preparing for this event. When did the pursuit of Olympic gold become a part-time job? And why should I watch someone pursuing what amounts to a hobby? I don’t watch bass fishing.

This utterance is not the or even a problem. The problem is that in watching these Olympics it often felt as if we were being subjected to two weeks of an Olympic pilot program, not a finished product.

The result is that in its desperation to stay relevant and increase the watchability, the International Olympic Committee is undermining the value of winning. The events become less life changing moments that the athletes have trained a lifetime to participate in and more of a primetime athletic experiment. Thus, there is no tension, no delicate balance between a lifetime wasted and dreams fulfilled all to be determined at the finish line.

This is not to say that every event and every story in these Olympics was uninteresting or uninspired. However, take a look at the general conduct of some of the members of the US Ski and Snowboard teams. The nonchalant and collegial attitude of the young bleach dyed hair contestants may not be unhealthy; in fact, it may be the proper perspective for young adults with a lifetime of failures and achievements ahead of them. But, it doesn’t make for good reality TV. People don’t watch the Real World because they all get along, we watch precisely because they don’t. We don’t want normal and we certainly don’t want well adjusted. American Idol edits out normal. We don’t want real TV, we want reality TV.

Consequently, the Winter Olympics ratings failures are due, in part, to too many sports that seem in some instances trivial and in other moments utterly contrived, but mostly because our conception of what amounts to reality has fundamentally changed and these Olympics paid the price. What is apparent as we reflect on the Games is that the Winter Olympics struggles to compete with its steroid infused reality show counterparts. But, despite all of the fuss and hand wringing, ultimately it may just be an issue of bad timing, not a fatal flaw in the Games. Once we’ve collectively kicked the habit of reality TV, maybe real TV, like the Winter Olympics and its athlete co-stars, will regain our attention and no longer seem too bland, too normal and, well, too real.
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The Winter Olympics: Too Real for Reality TV?

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