Downhill From Here

Let the games begin!” said Natalie Morales. “O.K., maybe not just yet.”

It was the morning of Tuesday, Feb. 9, three and a half days before the kickoff of the Winter Olympics, and on NBC’s Today the “Countdown to Vancouver” was in full swing. From the slopes of Cypress Mountain, Ms. Morales, in a red parka, gestured at a ski run behind her. Vancouver, she explained, was experiencing what was, by Canadian standards, a freakish heat wave. With time ticking down, officials were now dropping in snow via helicopters. (Plenty o’ banter about how we shoulda held the Olympics in New York, where at least a foot of the stuff is expected this week!)

“Natalie, how’s it look?” asked Matt Lauer, who was sitting in downtown Vancouver, awaiting an interview with the city’s mayor. Ms. Morales seemed confident that the city’s mental toughness would ultimately triumph over the adversity posed by the balmy weather. “This has been a superhuman effort,” she said.

In the weeks to come, NBC channels will air more than 800 televised hours of bobsledding, alpine skiing, speed skating, curling, luge and hockey. Amid the constellation of crowd favorites and comeback kids, one aging veteran of the games, bloodied yet still hungry for glory, will make a high-profile quest for redemption. That’s NBC. In the wake of its gruesome late-night face-plant, the network will spend hundreds of millions of dollars in the coming weeks doggedly proving that the histrionics of Team Coco are nothing compared to the heroics of Team U.S.A.

Olympic television has always thrived on nostalgia for past favorites, big (the Miracle on Ice) and small (Eddie the Eagle!). But this year, while watching NBC’s exhaustive coverage (the original “cyclonic perpetual emotion machine,” to quote Jon Stewart), American audiences are likely to experience a new form of longing. Nostalgia for the increasingly rare sight of an American media superpower bending the world to fit our stage. How will crowdsourcing replace all this?

In the four years since the last Winter Games in Turin, Italy, American life has drifted deeper into a new age of gnostic media consumption, in which every individual is capable of creative enlightenment and, as such, personally responsible for participating (whether through talk radio, Tumblr, Facebook or Twitter) in shaping the myths that sustain us. For the next two weeks, NBC will cast aside the ambiguities of participatory mythmaking and return us temporarily to the earlier era of narrative orthodoxy, in which a team of some 2,000 professionally ordained storytellers will join together in concert under the strict rule of NBC’s Olympics pope, Dick Ebersol.  

There are few things left in modern media life like the televised pageantry of the Olympics to convey that once pervasive feeling of what Daniel Boorstin called “the American illusion of omnipotence.” Walter Cronkite may be gone, but the Olympics can still reliably give us Bob Costas as the Voice of God. The full revelation of NBC’s coverage (double the number of televised hours from four years ago) will be passed down as always from on high, in the form of 1,001 human parables about the value of sacrifice, the cost of distraction and the fragility of earthly success. All that’s missing is the dramatic end to each story, which, of course, you will get to watch unfold live in HD.

Today’s assembly of NBC broadcasters can trace their lineage directly back to the original apostle of Olympic television, the late Roone Arledge. It was Mr. Arledge in 1964, producing his first Olympics for ABC, who figured out an algorithm for transforming dozens of sports Americans cared nothing about into an exalted form of scripted drama. Mr. Arledge’s epiphany was to narrow the vast field of competitors down to a few select characters, pile on the biography, crank up the stakes, drop in some bugles and let the snow fly. “More personalizing of competitors,” Mr. Arledge later wrote. “More sense of place … I hummed from my exalted summit.”

For the past half-century, Mr. Arledge and his disciples, including Mr. Ebersol (who in 1968 worked as Mr. Arledge’s research assistant during the Mexico City Games) have kept the Olympics humming . Along the way, they have endlessly refined the nuances of the presentation; this year’s technical advances include an increased deployment of radar guns and something called StroMotion cameras. But the basic formula has remained largely unchanged.

How much longer can it last? Vancouver will mark NBC’s sixth Olympics in a row. This year, thanks to the $820 million rights fee, the network could reportedly lose more than $200 million. In 2012, the network is scheduled to broadcast the Summer Games from London, for which it will shell out more than a billion dollars. Before the advent of broadcast television, Americans by and large ignored the Olympics. Now for the first time in decades, there’s a nagging question of what might happen to the Olympics after broadcast as we know it disappears.

Ron Simon, the curator of television and radio at the Paley Center for Media, told The Observer recently that pulling off the old Arledge formula has become increasingly hard, in part due to the proliferation of reality television—a genre that, like the Olympics, takes a cast of unknowns, builds up elaborate backstories and then sets the young go-getters against each other in obscure competitions. “We’ve seen every kind of triumph,” said Mr. Simon. “Everything seems clichéd. How do you make the story fresh? It was through the Arledge vision that the Games gathered this prominence in our psyche. This is the culmination of it. In many ways, it’s a grand hurrah for network television itself.”
Back in Vancouver, Matt Lauer launched into the network’s umpteenth profile of the winsome American skier Lindsey Vonn: the “golden girl” of these Olympic Games, who despite an unimaginable setback in 2006 was now once again “poised to be America’s breakout star.” It was one twilight round for the old mythmaking machine, still humming from the exalted summit.

fgillette@observer.com