Push me to the Olympics, please!

Every two years, the house I live in has the Olympics on practically all day.  It's no different right now.  In fact, right right now, as I'm writing, I can hear commentary from Ron McLean and Mark Lee behind me (200M men, fyi).  I don't think I'm all that unusual: the Olympics are huge for broadcasters, which is why they lavish so much money on it.  But this Summer Games is more important than most, partly because it's so unusual.  And after being trained to watch a certain way for 30 years, it's messing with my Olympic experience, which is why I'm writing about it.

The reason the Olympics are such a big deal is because this is the first one to break out of the "push medium" mold.  Throughout the second half of the 20th century, the biggest forms of media were broadcast: first radio, then television.  The key reality for most of that time was that there were a limited number of channels, and a very large guaranteed audience.  What that meant is that broadcasters had an enormous degree of control.  CBC got to decide pretty much what you were going to watch each night (or CBS in the States) basically because you only had one or two other channels to switch to.  They were able to push what they wanted on you.  Don't like I Dream of Genie?  Too bad.  Don't want to watch weight-lifting when the sports bigwigs decided to show it to you (darn it, I wanted to watch handball!)?  Too bad.

Cable TV started messing with this model--suddenly there were a dozen or two watchable channels, and ever-more specialized niche shows.  Sports only.  History documentary only.  Kids programming only.  Shopping only.  Middle-class professional women only.  Burning Christmas log with elevator versions of seasonal classics only (really!  They do this on the cable provider channels in Edmonton every Christmas).  Etc.  What's really broken it open, however, is the Internet.  Of course.

The Internet is the ultimate pull medium.  I choose what I want and go get it--instead of you forcing your stuff on me.  It took a bit for this to affect the Olympics.  But now that broadband has reached a critical mass and we have YouTube and cost-effective online video streaming, we're on the verge of TV with unlimited channels.

So now CBC has footage on like four or five TV channels--off the top of my head, they have at least the main broadcast, their new Bold! channel, and sometime-competitor TSN.  But here's the real kicker: something like nine online streaming channels.  NBC is even worse, from what I understand.  Hundreds and hundreds of hours of Olympic coverage.

Here's the plus side: you want something, you got it.  Really.  All equestrian all the time.  All field hockey.  Judo.  Trapshooting and archery of all eighty varieties.  In the past, you were going to devote very little of your precious air time to those sports--that would be insane.  The broadcaster wasn't going to drive audiences away with little niche activities that only 15,000 people in Canada want to watch--it'd kill advertising revenue.  So you do these little highlight packages, and shove the odd extended bit to 2am, when only fanatics and insomniacs are watching anyway.  But now, you're no longer a barely-tolerated oddity.  Yes, micro-audiences, defined by tiny interests actually work, thanks to the Internet.

But it has an odd side-effect.  See, the channels still have a hierarchy.  CBC main channel (or NBC) is still the flagship and gets the best ratings (shockingly, not everyone has cable TV or *gasp!* broadband Internet access).  And now that the flagship is free of those irritating minority sports fans, they can focus on the really popular stuff.

So why am I pining for the old days?  Well, here's the thing: I'm a sports fan, but I'm not a fanatic of really any of the Olympics sports.  I like watching them all a little bit, because what I love is the competition, the International aspects, the stories of the athletes (as much as I hate to admit that--the ultra-produced narratives are so often cheesy and manipulative), and just the exotic-ness of it all--I don't see this stuff but once every four years.  The upshot of this is that I'm not motivated enough to go searching for the little stuff.  But my Olympic diet has now been impoverished.  I've watched a ton of swimming, I anticipate a lot of track, seen a fair amount of rowing, some diving, far more gymnastics than I care to remembers (sorry--it's impressive, but not captivating), and a few bits and pieces with prominent Canadians.

That's not how it used to be.  I'd always see a bit of equestrian, a bit of wrestling, the odd fencing round, and even some shooting highlights.  Now all that stuff has been shunted off to the online channels.  Thing is, I like watching a little weightlifting every four years.  Not enough to go looking for it, but it's pretty amazing stuff, really.  I'm not watching any this time around, though.

This is the big point of the death of push media (and by the way, this is not an argument unique to me): there is something of a cultural unity advantage to being bound together by a push medium like broadcast TV.  When everyone gets to pick only what they like, their experience of diversity becomes diminished.  What you get is a set of national subcommunities.  Don't get me wrong: I like the ability to watch CFL and the Hockey Night in Canada non-Maple Leafs game on my computer.  But there may be a downside, oddly enough, to the fact that I'm no longer being pushed like I used to be.

Last updated Aug. 17th, 2008 at 8:52pm by Kevin Schut