I teach film to state-university students. Two weeks ago, I asked them to watch a bit of the Sochi Olympics, or perhaps just the opening ceremony. I planned to compare Leni Reifenstahl’s Olympia (1938) to current styles of representation. In the middle of last week, I asked for raised hands from anyone who’d seen anything from Sochi – about 7 of 30 people raised their hands. Remember, they were assigned to watch.
Look at reddit’s front page. There’s no Olympics conversations in the Top 20. (Well, this was true at 5pm PST Sunday.) I know, some of you are like, what’s reddit? That’s where young people discuss things online with strangers, without filters. But wait, the reddit-knowledgeable might object, the site’s not blind to the Olympics but rather sliver-focused: there’s a conversation about hockey, another one about luge, another one about snowboarding. Okay, but have you looked at the topics in the top 20 getting more comments than those?
Don’t get me wrong. I follow 80 people on Twitter, and 2 of them are @USOlympic and @NBCOlympics. I support Team USA – you know, from my couch. But my couch is in a weird place these days (the ceiling?). It misses its virtual friends. Think of all the TV shows that you’ve let go of. Remember when you told yourself you’d never stop watching The Simpsons? Saturday Night Live? The Real World? Jeopardy? MTV’s award shows? 60 Minutes? Yet somehow, eventually, you let them go. We all did. Yet somehow, crazily, I never thought we’d let go of the Olympics.
Are the ratings down? A little, not really. But if you look around, you’ll see most of the country is buried under several feet of snow. And more than half of the population bulge that is the baby boomers (born 1943 to 1961) is now officially retirement-age. The ratings ought to be as high as the top of Olympus.
Yes, some people are watching online, for example at NBCOlympics.com. Yes, the Olympics are still a thing and way ahead of any other particular thing. A few of you are watching with passion and reacting against this post with even more passion. But let’s try a thought experiment. You and I will meet at a supermarket ten months from now, in December. I’m going to pick up the Life 2014 Year in Pictures and show it to you. Among other photos, there will be one Winter Olympian on the cover – and it won’t be Shaun White. How likely do you think you are to know that person’s name?
Obviously the Winter Olys are never going to be as big as the Summer Olys; Winter’s got half the countries and more than double the clothing. (All that athletic near-nakedness in summer doesn’t exactly hurt ratings.) But the coolness factor is missing this year, and it’s not just because of the melting snow in Sochi. Herewith, ten reasons why:
- Tape-delay. The Vancouver games were often shown live, or almost live, and these aren’t. The packaging is like eating a hamburger out of vending-machine packaging: not terrible, but you can certainly tell the difference.
- Non-star power. No Bonnie Blair, no Apolo Ohno, no Lindsey Vonn. Gabby Douglas has a movie now. Name the breakout star from this Olympics who’s going to have such a thing in two years. I know it’s not nice to say, but apart from Shaun White (who lost), Team USA’s ensemble somehow doesn’t measure up to the ensemble wattage of, say, the Seattle Seahawks, the cast of American Hustle, or just the cartoons in Frozen.
- Non-whomping. As of this writing, Team USA is #7 in the medal count. As fickle audiences, you very well know we only watch winners…or contemptible reality-show failures. Like Aretha Franklin, we don’t mess with Mr. In-Between.
- Obama. It’s not that he didn’t attend (he skipped Vancouver and London too). It’s more pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan and re-starting multi-lateral discussions all over the place – basically that whole perceived foreign policy about making America just another country. Whether or not that’s fair, leftists are flattered by the notion, and thus their Olympic stakes are lower; rightists are infuriated by the notion, and can only assume that the previous item (non-whomping) is because Obama is spending less money and making us look like fools. Either way, why watch? But the bigger left-wing problem, of course, is…
- Gay rights. Or as I call them, human rights. It’s a little odd to see how righteous Americans have become over marriage equality when you consider that we were two Supreme Court votes away from a rather different national policy. Nonetheless, the Russians have been particularly reprehensible on this. There’s a whiff of reverse Woody Allen-ism in activist liberals loudly turning their backs on Sochi; were they really that interested in sports in the first place? (For the right-wingers who fulminate against Allen, were they really that interested in his films?) Still, any location that treats gays as less than humans isn’t exactly Must-See TV.
- Bob Costas’s eyes. Well, they haven’t helped. Not his fault. Not NBC’s fault. I’m less sure about Russia. Have you ever heard about what they did to Victor Yushchenko? I don’t blame NBC more generally, although plenty do. Personally, I wouldn’t mind more non-white-men doing the announcing. But hey, diversity is an issue with the Winter Olympics that goes beyond NBC…and also isn’t helping.
- Passport Olympians. You can read about it here. It’s kinda like the Grammys adding three new categories for trip-hop, polkas, and trip-hop-polkas. I mean, sure, it’s fine, but just as we know the Grammys aren’t exactly the Oscars, these Olympics make themselves sub-par even if they’re not sub-zero.
- The Black Sea. The last four Winter Olympics were in Japan, Utah, Italy, and Canada. Americans visit those places, or want to. Even young Americans. Spread anchors around there for local flavor, and American audiences remain interested. Americans don’t often visit Russia, and don’t even consider visiting the Northern Black Sea. Knowing this, NBC sent Mary Carillo on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, which doesn’t come within 1000 miles of Sochi. Though Carillo mentioned the train’s endpoints, NBC didn’t go to either. It was a ride to nowhere. Also, anyone noticed that this Olympics is being played at 60 degrees? Not very wintery. They needed Switzerland to ship in salt to keep the slopes from melting. True story.
- Russia more generally. Okay, this is technically part of the last one, but it bears repeating. Shirtless photos of Vladimir Putin. Everything here: #Sochiproblems. One could imagine an Olympics – well, okay, let’s start with a World Baseball Classic – in, say, Venezuela, where all the guests and all the locals said, “Hey, I know we’ve had our geo-political differences, but let’s have some fun for two weeks!” But that doesn’t quite seem like what happened in Sochi. The locals and the guests remain very wary if not contrary. Okay, so based on these nine problems, all we gotta do is elect Chris Christie, pay our athletes twice as much, move the 2022 games to Iceland or something, and everyone will watch again? Well, maybe not, because…
- Web 2.0 fragmentation. This is the biggest one, and also the one scaring the bejeezus out of NBC. Beijing, Vancouver, and London may have been outliers, with outsized reasons for Americans’ interest, like the English language and long-overdue China’s well-known stature as “the future.” Meaning that we’re in the first real ratings test since Torino, Italy, in February 2006. Do you remember 8 years ago? YouTube was technically around in February 2006, but it didn’t yet have everything; these days, if you really love luge or curling, you can watch it any old time, which takes some of the specialness away from the Games. More importantly, no reddit, no twitter, no instagram, very little facebook. Old Media was in its last gasps of telling you what was relevant, whether you liked it or not. These days, you curate your own media garden. Who needs the clutter coming from #Sochi2014?
I can’t speak for the rest of the world; NBC claimed that 70% of Norwegians and Swedes were watching Sunday’s cross-country skiing. But for Americans, The Olympics are…still a mountain in a media landscape filled mostly of hills. They’re simply more like Mount Etna now – a perfectly fine topographical feature, just not an unavoidable one these days. It’s not just Saturday Night Live and 60 Minutes anymore…if we can skip the Olympics, we can skip every single feature on the media map except the map itself, namely the internet. And if 300 million of us are making 300 million maps, where are we going?