NBC, Olympics and a Lack of StorytellingPosted August 01st 2012 @ 12:46 pm by Jerod
I love the Olympics and I love good storytelling. Fortunately, the two usually go together quite well. If you’re a fan of the games, you know what I’m talking about. Just before swimmers dive in, racing for a gold medal, there’s a short video story telling us something about the athlete. Maybe it’s a peek into tough milestones in their life, or a compelling insight into how they train. Whatever it is, usually those vignettes help draw you closer to a competitor. You want to root for them beyond the sole fact that they represent your country.
The 2012 Olympics have been a storytelling disappointment so far.
As I watch the Olympics this week, I see great opportunity for storytelling. The US women’s gymnastic team was poised to put America back on the gymnastics map. These young women have trained hard, and their success as the “Fab Five” will catapult them into Olympic lore, as they will surely be talked about for Olympics to come. Yet the one story NBC continues to circle back to is that of team member Jordyn Wieber, the reigning world champion who failed to qualify for the individual competition. There was no celebration of the team members who did qualify, no stories of their hard work and what a chance at gold will mean to them. We kept circling back to clips of Wieber crying. This, despite the fact that the gymnastics coaches have noted to other media sources that the results were not necessarily a surprise. Don’t the other two deserve some of the spotlight? Isn’t there something interesting about their win?
NBC’s overly dramatic focus on Wieber’s loss carried over to the team competition. Throughout the entire event, we heard NBC commentators frame the story as one of Wieber’s chance at redemption. The success of her team members’ performances (and higher scores) were overshadowed. Surely there is a more interesting, compelling and representative story to tell here.
Swimming has suffered the same storytelling crisis as gymnastics. In an event where Ryan Lochte won gold, the story from the aquatic center was that Michael Phelps didn’t medal in his race. Yes, this was an important point to make as Phelps was working towards winning the most medals in Olympics history. But the main spotlight belonged to Lochte, who had worked hard, has his own back story to tell and brought home first place. We knew Phelps didn’t really train as much in the off-season, so why not tell the story of someone who did?
Sideline interviews have been rough, too. Poolside questions from the reporter are reduced to, “How did it feel to win a medal?” We all know the answer: Stinkin’ great! And even as the men’s relay took Gold in the 4x200 free, the questions revolved around Michael Phelps winning his record setting 19th Olympic metal. Not a congratulations to the other guys. Just questions like, “How did it feel to swim with Phelps?” and comments like, “Congrats on helping Michael win his 19th medal.” There are opportunities lost to tell a story when the wrong questions are being asked.
Even the video shorts leading into each competition this year are uninspiring. While they are well shot, using unique close up angles and set to decent music, there is no clear message. In this case, sadly, the picture (or video) is not worth a thousand words. I am left wanting more.
I don’t solely bring all this up to rant about Olympic coverage. I do think there is a real lesson in storytelling for church communicators as they watch. Good storytelling takes work and preparation. Asking questions to get compelling answers takes thought. When you’re interviewing someone, the questions you ask can lead to interesting answers. When you reach beyond a list of basic, uncreative questions such as “How do you feel,” you can get compelling content. Finally, you can make a video look as cool as you can, but it doesn’t do anything if there’s no story to back it up.
When we tell stories that manufacture drama and focus on pity, your viewers may be emotionally caught up in the moment but in the long term, what have they learned? As a church, it's easy to plug in dramatic, emotional or creatively edited videos or testimonies or songs. These elements can sweep congregations into an emotional experience. But what is the purpose of that? If there is no culminating point - no reinforcement of the sermon, no life application, no thoughtful explanation of Christ's redeeming sacrifice - then you should step back and question why you're doing it at all.
When we’re intentional about assembling a story, we can compel people to care.
And while this post has been a bit of an Olympic downer, there have been bright storytelling moments, too. There have been a couple of interesting video introductions for swimming.
One featured Michael Phelps and Allison Schmitt. The two American swimmers have been training together. Schmitt has made Phelps more relaxed and Phelps has helped Schmitt become a more serious competitor. It gives fun insight to a part of their lives we know little about.
Another video highlighted the relationship between Phelps and his longtime coach; specifically, how Bob Bowman pushed Phelps beyond his comforts. He’d make him skip meals or get out of a car and walk to practice. He even knocked Phelps’ goggles off his face or made him swim in events without goggles when he forgot them. Yet in 2008, when Phelps narrowly won the gold in the 100 butterfly, it turns out his goggles had filled with water and he couldn’t see a thing. The tough training by his coach prepared him to count his stokes so he knew exactly where he was in the pool. The tough coaching paid off.
That’s an interesting story. And in an Olympic year where storytelling has been mainly missed in the early days, the good stuff stands out. But it also highlights how ineffective bad storytelling can be.