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Watching the Watchdog: Maybe We'll do Better Next Time, at Least in TV Coverage

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

That was one helluva emotional closing spectacle.

No, I'm not talking about that Day In The Life Of London and its splendid spectacle.

It's the athletes who brought tears to my eyes -- all joyous, blissful, bursting with energy, strolling, dancing, running, singing into the arena.

Christine Sinclair with that smile that reached all the way across an ocean. Her teammates, so Canadian, so informal, in their gorgeous jean jackets.

So much life in all their faces. So much splendour in all their eyes.

It's the eyes of the Olympic athletes over the past 17 days I'll remember longest.

The eyes of the winners -- triumphant, jubilant, glorying in the moment. All that sweat, strain and agony behind them now. Certain of more glory to come. No limits. No borders.

And the eyes of the losers -- lost, bewildered, somehow betrayed. Because all that sweat, strain and agony didn't bring the victory dreamed. The glory so urgently wanted. The victory so desperately desired.

And their spirit. Their obvious decency. Their honesty and integrity. How surprisingly intelligent and generous they were in both victory and defeat.

These were the Olympians of the XXX Olympiad. Their beauty, their class, transcended even the sordid embrace of the International Olympic Committee and the rabid advertisers.

__________

I've been trying to work out why, when it had such magnificent material to play with, CTV screwed up so much of its evening prime time coverage.

Certainly there were magnificent moments covered with due -- and too often undue -- reverence.

Jamaica's Usain Bolt became the world's favourite athlete. American Michael Phelps won his 18th career gold. Andy Murray won gold for Great Britain, at Wimbledon of all hallowed places.

Then there was Rosie MacLennan's splendid aerial gold for Canada. And our two magnificent losers -- the women's soccer team and men's 4x100-metre relay team.

No broadcaster could have missed them.

But woven in and around these highlights were hours of meaningless heats and quarter finals, followed by long, mostly dull features, which too often gave way to even more meaningless heats and quarter finals and longer, duller features.

Why?

The closest I've come to an explanation from CTV publicity (I'm still waiting for some answers from last week) is that the network chose "Canadian medal events and marquee sports" from all the available feeds from London.

I've watched its prime time broadcast with religious devotion (apart from food, beer and bathroom breaks) every evening since the start. So I guess that means mostly swimming, diving, gymnastics and athletics. All perfectly legitimate, of course.

But there were 36 sports played at these Olympics. Each containing, I have no doubt, at least 36 great stories about the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

Maybe I glanced away for a moment, but I don't remember seeing anything involving archery, badminton, boxing, handball, hockey (played on grass, as it should be), sailing, shooting, table tennis, water polo or anything about those magnificent horses galloping and jumping and dancing on the spot.

Good journalism -- and I submit that coverage of Olympics is as much journalism as coverage of political conventions, which it so often resembles -- would have found at least some of those great stories and told them to us. Instead of running those interminable heats and quarter finals which brought us numbers and statistics but almost never actual understanding or storytelling.

Which brings me to the surprise announcement that the people's network, CBC, has won the rights to broadcast the next Olympics. The 2014 Winter Games in Sochi and the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.

This is all very mysterious. How on earth can the eternally cash-strapped CBC afford the rumoured $80-million cost of the Games?

But my purpose today is not to question how the Corporation slices up its very limited budget. Instead, it's to offer advice to CBC for Olympics 2014 and 2016.

I know CBC has me around the top of its ignore list. Partly because I've suggested closing the place down one Friday, doing some zero-based budgeting, and starting up with a completely different Corporation the following Monday. And partly because I show no respect to its chief anchor, one Peter Mansbridge, who I believe should have been replaced years go.

Even so, here's my advice to CBC. For free.

Bring back storytelling from wherever your news and sports departments exiled it.

Storytelling could have been designed specifically for sports coverage. Sports are all about conflict, contrast, quests, change and values. The basic elements of storytelling.

Storytelling wraps the cold facts of the results into resonating emotion.

Storytelling brings a first-hand, emotional experience to the viewer who participates vicariously in the event.

Storytelling holds viewers with the powerful glue of the questions: What will happen next? How will it turn out? Who will lose? Who will win?

As famed screenwriter Robert McKee once said (I know because I heard him): "Storytelling fundamentals are the same forever and everywhere because storytelling is a metaphor for life and life is the same everywhere."

Now the details:

  • Change the way the prime time scheduling is decided. By all means keep a focus on CTV's "Canadian medal events and marquee sports." But drop all the heats in which no Canadians are involved, or in which nothing much is at stake, and replace them with stories from non-marquee sports.
  • No need to interview every single Canadian athlete who takes part. Only bring in those with real stories to tell. And replace all that saved interview time with stories from the 36.
  • Insist the features be better told. Tighten, tauten them. And fill the time saved with stories from the 36.
  • And for god's sake train your commentators. So they behave like real people, not adolescent groupies. So they get enthusiastic only when there're real reason to get enthusiastic. And drop all those sporting clichés, bromides, truisms and platitudes. And stop reading scripts and us. And tell stories.
  • And tell stories.

In classic storytelling (particularly appropriate to athletes, warriors, gods, lovers, etc., etc.) someone goes on a quest, is tested, overcomes obstacles, succeeds or fails at reaching the desired goal and, one way or another, returns.

That, both literally and figuratively, will be the CBC's own story when it broadcasts the Games in 2014 and 2016 and has to justify the enormous cost.

So go for broke, CBC.

Rethink, redesign, reimagine the way Olympics are covered.

And try storytelling.

It's worked very well for half a million years, give or take a millennium or two.