I’ve spent much of yesterday ( Monday) afternoon and evening watching five hours of NBC’s coverage of the Olympic eventing cross-country, so I had to write about it.
The first point I have to make is how great it is to have such a huge block of TV coverage. And that’s something that’s only been possible in the last decade, thanks to the hundreds of channels now available on the cable and satellite providers (we have DirecTV), so that NBC has several channels that need programming, and that means that they now have the time to put the Olympic equestrian sports on, time they never had before in the relatively narrow slot of network TV. I can still remember 1976, when our eventing team won the gold and Tad Coffin and Mike Plumb won the gold and silver, and we didn’t see a second of it on whatever network televised the Olympics then. (I think it was ABC.). Unfortunately, Olympic TV coverage has only been slightly less frustrating since then.
And I didn’t even watch the streaming video available yesterday (on either the NBC or BBC sites), where the avid could watch most of every single one of the 70-plus rounds. I’m afraid I didn’t have time to sit in front of my computer for that, not with six horses to work and three lessons to teach.
I believe that the TV cameras were all the BBC’s, and they did a fabulous job with camera placement all around the Greenwich course, especially with the camera suspended on a wire above the park. Honestly, I thought it was a helicopter until Heather told me it was a camera on a wire. And their ground cameras did an excellent job of showing how hilly and sometimes steep the course was. The cameras conveyed the challenges of the course as well as TV can.
But two production decisions really annoyed me. The first is a criticism I’ve made many times of TV cross-country coverage: They never showed a graphic of the course map. I’ve never understood this all-too-common omission, as it seems to me a basic step to helping viewers understand the event. We found a course map online, and, as I suspected, in this case it would have been especially instructive. Course designer Sue Benson did an amazing job of creating a 3.5-mile course in a rather limited area, designing a track that curve back and forth around Greenwich Park but still had long stretches of galloping.
The other annoying decision was that the NBC broadcast started well into the day, after both Boyd Martin and Karen O’Connor had finished. I’m sure this was a matter of fitting the broadcast within the available time, but I wish they could have shown more recorded footage of Boyd’s and Karen’s rounds while riders from Russia or South Africa, whom we had miniscule interest in, were on course.
But I gather from several comments from announcers Tim Ryan and Melanie Smith-Taylor that the NBC directors weren’t in charge of the feed.
Ryan and Smith-Taylor have developed an enjoyable and predictable rhythm over seven or eight years of hosting the telecast from the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event (and the 201 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games), plus Melanie has announced on the limited Olympic coverage since, I think, 1992.
Of course, having a blog gives me a place to nit-pick, so I will. Ryan’s mispronunciation of names and other errors were annoying (giving incorrect ages and accomplishments of several riders, calling Hawley Bennett-Awad “Hailey” instead of Hawley, and stating that Capt. Mark Phillips was going to become the British coach after leaving our team). But I could tell Ryan and Smith-Taylor were getting tired late in the day—they’d probably been sitting there for seven or eight hours looking back and forth at TV screens. And it must have been extra-hard because the on-air feed was not NBC’s, so they didn’t have a director in their ear telling them without fail what shot was coming up, and I don’t think they had any instant replay to help them analyze what they’d seen happen.
Surprisingly, my research of the further Olympic equestrian coverage shows surprisingly sparse coverage of the dressage and show jumping (two jump9ng shows and one dressage). Perhaps their successful coverage of Rolex Kentucky has convinced the NBC bigwigs that eventing and equestrian are synonymous? I doubt it, but I have no other plausible explanation.
But how lucky we were to see great riders like Andrew Hoy, Mark Todd, Andrew Nicholson, Mary King and, briefly, Phillip Dutton make a very difficult cross-country course look relatively easy. If you watched carefully, they gave a cross-country riding lesson.