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Entertainment

Must Flee Olympic TV?

Coverage can't compete with reality shows.

Ryan Austin 23 Feb 2006TheTyee.ca

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For the past two weeks of Winter Olympics coverage, you've likely either been glued to the television (at least, more than usual) or stayed as far away from the mention of moguls and medals as you can. And that's probably the same pattern as your reality TV viewing habits.

For true fans of reality TV, the ones who return weekly to watch the exploits of their favourite island castaways, amazing racers or would-be singers, the Olympics have what's most important for great viewing: interesting characters from all walks of life, sappy stories, intimate interviews and plenty of plot twists. Then there are those for whom this is viewing torture. Fair enough. And the most common complaints about the games sound like the same ones leveled at reality entertainment: namely, it's neither real nor entertaining. But somehow, in the Olympics, these pesky little problems are on steroids.

Heroes and goats

Let's start with the good side: the stories. Albertan mogul skier Jennifer Heil rallied from injury and school (both highly debilitating) to win gold, and is just the type of deserving, aw-shucks tale you can find on any episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. As for excitement, Cindy Klassen led a top-two Canadian finish to win the 1,500-meter speed-skating title, and on the same day, our favourite national team, the men's hockey, failed to make the semi finals. And if that's not enough, and you like intrigue, then Vancouverite Dale Begg-Smith's gold medal for, ahem, Australia will remind you of so many tribal alliance shifts seen on Survivor.

Even the scandals, arguably bad for competition in general, still make for great television. This year, stories about athletes behaving badly are the talk of the town: American Bode Miller spoke on record about his experiences skiing drunk. Wayne Gretzky spoke on tape about his wife's alleged involvement in a betting ring. Vice President Dick Cheney spoke to the press about his shooting mishap. Wait, skeet shooting is in the Summer Olympics.

Get me rewrite!

But then there's the bad: first, there's the lack of good scripting. Most reality shows are pre-taped and greatly condensed, giving producers a chance to choose what conflicts to include or ignore. This can involve as much scripting as any other type of sitcom. Now, you'd think it would be pretty tough to script an event where a winner is often decided by mere milliseconds, centimeters, or added flair and that's not to say people don't try. But sometimes the events can, well, drag on. How many runs of a bobsled can the average viewer really watch?

The Canadian Olympic Committee also forgot to pander to our need for drama by providing cliffhangers in its pre-games publicity. Instead, they gave a concrete prediction that we would rank amongst the top three medal takers for Torino. At best, the games are anticlimactic. At worst, they're a huge disappointment. Where's my spoiler alert?

Then there's product placement, which is bad enough in reality television, but out of control in the games. At least I can believe the builders of Extreme Makeover would use Sears products, or that American Idol's Randy Jackson would drink a large Coke. At the Olympics, however, the majority of products you see in support of athletes are ones they would never use. Hayley Wickenheiser advertises Hamburger Helper - please! And could someone tell me what figure skater trains with a Big Mac?

Skeleton crew

And as for the "candid" interviews with athletes right after each event - don't even get me started on how those pale against those in reality TV.

Finally, there's nothing like overexposure to introduce the danger of frostbite - of the athletes or the actual shows. Reality TV shows give us a full week to recover between Trump firings and Amazing Race phil-iminations. But Olympics coverage gives less breathing room than the two-man skeleton, which, by the way, is a sport?

But if we think the Olympics are inescapable now, just think about 2010.

Ryan Austin is a law student who watches too much TV and maintains the Lawyerlike blog.  [Tyee]

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