I’m one of those of us who becomes a bit of a couch expert every 4 years when the Olympics hits our screens; a bit of an expert on US gymnast Simone Biles and the way she might spin at you, or the colour of the water in the diving pool in Rio, or that odd name “keirin” they give to the track-cycling in the velodrome. Turns out that’s Japanese, by the way.
Sport is made for television, for the colour, drama and excitement. And of course, the human stories of the athletes, and the real live drama that’s played out in front of us for hours and hours all day for weeks.
But this year, it’s been even better than we could have expected, TV-wise, that is.The sports people will have been disappointed by our medal count, but as TV content goes, it’s been up there with the best.
Because it has created classic, unforgettable TV moments, and ones that went viral or “spiral” as our now famous O’Donovan rowing brothers called it.
Good TV creates watercooler moments: the ones we can share with relative work strangers or close family; they are often short, spark an instant emotion, and are etched on our memories in an instant. They are the community moments, the ones we will all remember. The one-minute clips we share on Facebook and Twitter. The ones we will talk over the watercooler or in the canteen at work.
You get the message.
August, the dead month of domestic news, politics and the courts, is a killer for newsrooms, where bulletins and programmes might be cut back but still have to be filled every hour on the hour, and when most news-generating correspondents are off taking annual breaks, with their contacts-filled databases in tow and their mobile phones switched off.
So the Augusts when the Olympics are being held is an easy, busy beat for the programme editors.
And this year’s got off to an unexpected and news-filled start with the boxers, and looks likely to end with the boxers as well.
In between waiting for the actual sports action, there was the drip feed story of a ticket-selling scandal linked to the Olympic Council of Ireland, and the unexpected drugs test failure. Both stories continue to generate front page headlines as the Games come to their final days.
TV and radio companies and stations invest an enormous amount in staffing and resources in the Olympics, increasingly competing with social media and online channels – YouTube in particular – to ensure that their audiences have the live moments when they want them: getting the live feed of their athlete’s event, the instant reaction of the athlete, and the emotional responses of family and coaches, both on the ground at the Olympics and at home.
Sport is so popular because it dramatic: full of raw emotion, connecting to the audience, and it’s great TV.
This year, it’s been the instant response that has brought the stand-out watercooler moments.
The TV stations pay to ensure that their reporter and camera has the first reaction of the athlete to their performance – before the coach, the family or the friends.
And this is where the TV gold has occurred.
It wasn’t the actual rowing (a few minutes only) of the O’Donovan brothers we will all remember, but their stand-up-routine interviews to RTE TV immediately after their heats and the final.
These lads are the dream interviewees: they are relaxed in front of the camera, they have the gift of the gab, they make us smile, and they tell great stories in a West Cork accent full of personality and fun.
They also look like they enjoyed themselves – and of course it helped that they were winners. But even before they’d got that silver medal, they’d won the hearts of viewers everywhere – from the BBC to the Washington Post and Slate magazine – because they didn’t come out with the usual monotonal serious babble-like response of the professional athletes so psychologically focussed on their performance they are unable to talk in simple plain English like the rest of us.
If I was a TV executive, I’d be sending someone to get the O Donovans signed up for a reality-TV series; someone probably already has, right?
Also TV gold but in a different way were the stories of two of the defeated boxers: Katie Taylor and Michael Conlon. For showing the raw emotion of a devastating defeat, the shock of disappointment, Katie Taylor’s face said it all in that interview she gave within minutes of her defeat.
Joe Stack, her interviewer, sounded apologetic as he asked for her reaction: we were watching grief and loss right before our eyes and it was almost too painful to watch. But TV gold all the same.
And Michael Conlon – well that was just sheer unfettered anger, and frustration – as he struggled to hold his tears back at the unexpected and unfair judgement of his match. Caught on camera, to be relayed to the world instantly.
Sailor Annalise Murphy’s success had less of the drama and intensity of the boxing and rowing, and while we were all proud of her, she didn’t have the colourful turn of phrase or the raw emotion we’d become almost addicted to now with the Olympics. Annalise’s victory has emerged at a slower pace, but her smiling face will be with us for some time yet.
It cost RTE a fortune to send so many staff to the Olympics, but they couldn’t afford not to send them. Big sport is big TV, built around the common experience of audiences, who expect to be able to turn on the news and see the Irish athletes win, lose or draw. They expect to have the authoritative pundits, the instant reactions, and the stories of the athletes. That’s what they are paying their licence fee for, right?
TV is changing though; by 2020 in Toyko, I wonder how many of us will still be watching the Olympics on the TV in front of the couch – and how many on a mobile screen via a live stream?
I found Annalise’s final sailing moments on a Facebook Live stream from a friend who pointed his mobile phone (steadied on a tripod I’d reckon) at a TV screen in his sailing club. Several Facebook friends abroad thanked him profusely for the live feed of the event on their mobile phones through Facebook, unable to get the TV feed from their holiday homes or beaches abroad.
I later watched a live Facebook feed of Annalise receiving her medal via the phone of one of her friends standing close by in Rio. It was shaky but it was very real, very dramatic, and great fun.
I thought: wonder how many of them have paid their licence fee? And how will TV companies be able to compete with that Facebook Live streaming in Toyko in 2020?