NBC’s Geographic Imagination, as Reflected in the Olympics Opening Ceremony

A lot has been said about the incredibly sub-par coverage provided by NBC during the Opening Ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Between their questionable decision to tape-delay the ceremony to coincide with prime time to maximize ratings to the many, many omissions from the rather bland, unsurprisingly free-of-colonialism ceremony on the U.S. broadcast — including, quite offensively, a tribute to the 7/7 tube bombings that occurred the day after London’s winning of the games was announced (see the tribute here). Also omitted: a tribute to the Sex Pistols, several music performances (which reviews called outstanding) and more. Instead, they showed a god-awful interview with Michael Phelps, a notably prolific swimmer who, quite frankly, has the personality of a broken toaster oven.

With this job of hacking, I’m honestly surprised they didn’t slice a few verses from Paul McCartney’s moving rendition of “Hey Jude” and replace it with ads for McDonald’s and Coca-Cola.

After the ceremony, the event’s director, Academy Award-winning filmmaker Danny Boyle, was interviewed by a talking head (some lady named Meredith Viera, who I know I’m supposed to have some idea about but whose contribution to the evening I didn’t find to even be worthy of Googling) who wouldn’t let talk him talk about anything but working with the Queen, a 30-second portion of a four-hour program.

[ And none of this mini-rant includes anything about the pitiful amount of coverage available (all on tape-delay… to see anything live you’d better have a pricey cable subscription) to people dependent upon broadcast television, the horrible fluff human interest pieces they run (even with the tape delay) about American athletes who place eighth in whatever competition, or the fact that the main website to find the schedule for their content (nbcolympics.com) has results published for events they haven’t yet broadcast, or the fact that their promos for news shows give away the winners. I digress. ]

“See Bob, Djibouti is funny because it sounds like we’re talking about someone’s butt!”

Okay, so NBC utterly failed at covering the pageantry part of the ceremony thing, and few would dispute that. After this part was over was the portion of the opening ceremony I normally look most forward to, the Parade of Nations, where all the athletes (at least the ones not competing the next morning) and their coaches and trainers walk in, proudly representing their nations to a global audience. The announcers during this portion, Bob Costas and Matt Lauer, were absolutely atrocious. They mentioned Djibouti’s similarity to a slang word for a body part, talked exclusively about Borat during Kazakhstan’s entry, brought up the horrors of Iddi Amin for Uganda and genocide for Rwanda, and mispronounced the names of many countries. You would think that since NBC is spending millions to bring over 2,200 staffers to work in London, that the network would have provided the commentator numbskulls with a couple of decent, knowledgeable sentences about each country…. but, no.

Yet, NBC’s narrative embarrassments there aren’t the point of this blog entry. No, no. Because, beyond the utter failures in coverage and disrespect shown by its commentators, NBC was also very, very greedy. Remember how I mentioned that viewers would need a pricey cable subscription to see almost every Olympic event? Well, NBC is now owned by Comcast, the fourth most-hated corporation in America for its money-grubbing tactics and its total disregard for the customer experience. What did this translate into during the Opening Ceremony? Lots and lots and lots of commercials.

Nations Preempted for Ads

Each of these nations were preempted for ads, leaving their delegations each less than seven seconds on air:

Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, British Virgin Islands, Brunei, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Colombia, Comoros, Congo, Cook Islands, Costa Rica, Côte D’Ivoire, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Estonia, Guam, Guatemala, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Latvia, Lebanon, Lesotho, Liberia, Micronesia, Moldova, Monaco, Mongolia, Montenegro, Morocco, Mozambique, Myanmar, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, St. Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, San Marino, Sao Tome and Principe.

In addition, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and the Virgin Islands were each shortened to less than 12 seconds each so that additional footage of the United States delegation could be spliced into the march.

Almost certainly, the slicing, dicing and discarding of key moments in the Opening Ceremony’s first act was for the purpose of shoving in more commercials. Okay, fine, it’s offensive, but whatever. As the second act, that Parade of Nations marched on, the same thing continued, but instead of omitting or glancing over parts of an entertainment production, NBC instead did the same to entire nations, making a mockery of their athletes’ accomplishments. In other words, NBC sold out a number of nations and how they were represented to the American public (who, given the sad state of our country might never hear of some of these countries again), just to make more money on ads.

Well, sure, you might be saying. NBC is a business, and it should sell ads to make some money. Okay. In the almost precisely two hours of airtime that passed from the moment the Greek flag entered the stadium until Great Britain’s delegation settled in, there were 13 commercial breaks totaling 40 minutes of advertisements. This 40 minutes accounted for 33.3% of the airtime during the parade of nations, during which 51 of the nations had their entry shortchanged by the network to save time (see the sidebar to the left).

One thing that’s unique, fascinating and representative of the mythical “Olympic spirit” is the striking equality during that Parade of Nations when every nation gets a “moment in the sun.” Every nation gets to enter, march around the arena, and find their spot for the rest of the show. In terms of television coverage, most of the nations should get approximately equal time, with some exception made because of the size of the delegation simply because on live television it takes longer for more people to walk in. On a time-delay situation, every nation could, theoretically, receive 100% equal coverage.

Despite this opportunity, it didn’t happen on NBC, which edited, sliced and diced the parade to make more money, shafting a lot of nations in the process.

Now, remember, this is tape-delayed, so they very well could have picked up right where the parade left off before each commercial break, but NBC made a conscious decision to not do this. Ultimately, what this meant was that, for 51 nations, instead of the normal introduction, these countries that fell during a break got a “…and then, ____ entered the arena, followed by…” typically showing these nations’ delegations each for six seconds or less. And because NBC was quick to defend its Opening Ceremony edits by saying it was “tailored to the U.S. television audience,” we can safely say that the editing in the Parade of Nations represented an intentional presentation on the network’s part and hence a display of its geographic imagination.

I think that, by looking at the amount of time shown for each nation, the ceremony provides some actual data we can use to dig into NBC’s geographic imagination of the world, and sadly, how the world is presented to much of the American public who might not encounter any other exposure to these nations beyond the quadrennial olympic games.

What I’ve done to measure this is to review the Opening Ceremony and time the number of second that each nation’s delegations were featured on-screen. From there, I made a simple grayscale map (below) based on a scale of shortest (no delegation) to longest (the United Kingdom, who hogged the camera for 4.5 minutes by being the last ones to enter, as is the host’s tradition). I intentionally placed this on a white background/ocean to represent how, by NBC’s ignoring of these places, they can disappear from the larger American consciousness.

Here are the results. (click to make it bigger):

At this point, I’ve probably rambled enough to get my Twitter account suspended. Feel free to interpret this map however you choose.

Author: Andrew Shears

Andrew Shears is an Assistant Professor of Geography at Mansfield University in Mansfield, Pennsylvania. His research interests lie at an intersection of the human-environmental nexus, and includes branches of mapping, technological, memorialization and urban geographies. He lives in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania with his wife Amy, a professional photographer.