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Watching the Watchdog: My 2012 Olympic Coverage Report Card

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Tim Knight writes the regular media column, Watching the Watchdog, for HuffPost Canada.

The rather pompous official name for Canada's 2012 Olympic Games broadcaster is the Olympic Broadcast Media Consortium.

Actually, it's an alias for our two giant telephone companies -- Bell Media (formerly CTVglobemedia) and Rogers Media. Bell owns both CTV and 80 per cent of the Consortium.

If you believe the ratings (always a dangerous thing to do), the phone companies produced excellent Games.

According to their figures, around 32-million Canadians (95 per cent of us) watched some coverage over the 17 Olympic days. Viewing was up 88 per cent over the 2008 Beijing Games (broadcast by CBC). And CTV won the largest daytime and prime time audiences on every single day of the Games.

Obviously a gold medal for the phone companies. And, no doubt, big profits. (Bell and Rogers are in the profits business. Along with Telus, they own 95 per cent of the Canadian wireless market and had a combined profit margin of 45.9 per cent last year. In fact, they're by far the most profitable carriers in the developed world.)

But the rights to the 2010 and 2012 Games cost the phone companies $153 million. While according to the Globe and Mail, the Consortium only sold around $100-million worth of advertising -- a lot of money but significantly less than the cost of the rights.

Adam Ashton, who is president of the Consortium, emails:

" ... the rights costs were substantial, and although we have yet to complete our reconciliation, it is projected that losses will be in the tens of millions for 2012."

All of which might explain why, even before the Games began, Bell and Rogers decided to stick with selling cellphones and aren't interested in the next Olympics (which have gone to CBC).

Now, the viewing numbers are excellent of course. But they're no more than a rather dubious measurement of eyes in front of TV sets, computers and various gadgets. They're not indications of satisfaction. Or dissatisfaction.

I'm told some London advertising slots were held open for last-minute advertisers. So the question naturally arises -- if the content of the London Games had been better, would the phone companies have sold more advertising and actually made a profit? We'll never know.

For the record though (and in my ever-generous and doubtless unappreciated desire to help CBC plan its own Sochi and Rio de Janeiro Olympics), here are some things in CTV's evening prime time coverage that certainly could have been done better:

Thing #1: The opening generic video, played at the start of every program, was garish, flat and clichéd. All cheap CGI and uninteresting. No sense of either the Games or London. Not a good start.

Thing #2: Anchor Brian Williams was first class as always. Even though he (and often we) knew every result by the time it got its prime time airing, he was able to make his part of the 17 days sound fresh and interesting. Easy going, unflappable, a rock in a sea of over-excited reporters and commentators, he was the traffic cop par excellence. So why on earth wasn't Williams used more? Much more?

Far too often the producers simply cut from one event to another without Williams or any introduction at all. One over-excited reporter gave way to another over-excited reporter with no justification for the new event, no setting up of its context, no attempt to explain the stakes involved, no building a storyline. It was as if the producers believed it was enough to simply show us what happened. No need for storytelling. Just the facts ma'am. Wham, bang, thank you ma'am!

Story introductions are what Williams does. Brilliantly. So well, in fact, that even when the information he had wasn't great, somehow he was able to intrigue us, seduce us, get us interested in whatever was to come.

Thing #3: I've written it before and I'm writing it again now -- there were far too many meaningless heats and quarter and semi finals with no storyline to intrigue us and no Canadian involved. These Olympics were full of wonderful stories. The third heat in the quarter finals of one of those bicycle races where no one on earth understands what's happening, who's winning, who's losing, wasn't one of them.

Thing #4: Too often, when nothing of much import was involved, we were made to sit through long, long shots of swimmers walking out of doors to the pool or runners to the starting block. This when a little judicious editing would have cut down the footage to its dramatic base and made a much more interesting story.

Thing #5: Three out of every four CTV reporters and commentators weren't actually at the Games. Instead, they were in Toronto, narrating the live footage as it came in. Then the footage was edited for use on the evening prime time show. But particularly in the swimming and running events, the narrators too often lost track of which competitor was where. Even when that happened though, the event was run without correction for prime time. Not incidentally, more supering of names would have helped us viewers a lot.

Thing #6: Every coverage of every Games gets criticized because commentators and analysts use sport clichés and jargon. Seems to be a jock thing. This Olympics was no different. For instance, in rowing it seemed the difference between five stroke and six stroke was very important. Would that I knew why! In show jumping, analysts earnestly discussed the importance of the number of horse's strides and "changing stride". Baffling.

Thing #7: Longer features mixed up among the events were supposed to bring us the human side of the athletes. It wasn't so much that there were too many features, it was that they used up precious time and for the most part weren't particularly well done. Felt a lot like the phone companies were saving money here.

Thing #8: The requisite experts were -- as so often in broadcast news and sports -- excellent when interviewed and ad libbing, but crass amateurs when reading scripts. Clearly, Rick Hansen and Greg Wells, who both had fascinating things to say, were just shoved in front of camera with no performance training. It showed. Stephen Brunt didn't do any narrating so was consistently excellent. Monica Platek's Bell Social Scene, vapid and silly, seemed strangely an afterthought.

It's all rather sad. Such magnificent athletes. Such incredible stories. All that thrill of victory and agony of defeat. The Consortium's XXX Olympiad could have been a storytelling triumph, a TV event for the ages.
But it wasn't.

Instead, our super-rich phone companies mostly produced mediocrity. As I say, it's all rather sad. Maybe it just goes to prove that money can't buy everything.