Where there are empty bleachers, expect empty sofas
PORTLAND, ORE. — Thank goodness the folks at NBC don't have spycams that can see into my living room during the Olympics, because I'm sure they would be distressed by the extended periods of time when my sofa is vacant.
Empty seats are not what TV executives like to see during high profile events that have been lavished with expensive publicity campaigns, and in Athens the number of venues that appear to be spectator- challenged has become a story in itself.
Having worked in television news, I can vouch for the fact that everyone in the chain of command looks closely at what's happening behind the main action. The images on-screen should complement each other.
When you interview a lawyer, the office library is a nice setting because all those books behind the speaker reinforce the notion of order and reasoned deliberation.
If your subject is a swimmer, it's good to frame the shot with pool water glimmering over the aquanaut's shoulder.
So I sympathize with announcers who are striving to convey excitement and suspense during a spirited competition while the cameras clearly show long rows of unoccupied chairs in the background.
In less venerable circumstances, the contrast would provide grist for a barrage of smart-alecky banter that modern sportscasters routinely deliver: "Say, Bob, do you suppose all the fans who were supposed to be here took a wrong offramp on the Athens Expressway? Or maybe ABBA is having a reunion concert we didn't hear about!"
But using sports-bar humor to mock the host country at the Olympics wouldn't be appropriate, and for NBC any mention of empty bleachers surely brings up unpleasant memories of that obnoxious XFL fiasco.
My advice to the network is not to do too much hand- wringing (unless they want to make it a demonstration event) and don't play the blame game.
It's not about bad marketing or bad attitudes among the locals.
What I'm about to say may shock the NBC promotion department, but you people are dealing with a huge, sprawling product. Did you really expect standing-room-only crowds for every bounce of a ping-pong ball or stroke of a kayak paddle?
I'm sports-minded, but I simply can't get emotionally invested in every offering. Earlier this week I tuned in as a French boxer traded punches with an Indian opponent. I gave them two minutes, and then a voice in my head said, "You really need to water the garden."
Audience enthusiasm can be tough to predict, but the network honchos should make this a learning experience.
How about hiring someone to design retractable banners that could be painted with logos of corporate sponsors and draped over the vacant areas as needed? Bingo - empty seats become revenue generators.
The bottom line is this: In a free society we don't force customers through the turnstiles.
You may love the Olympics, and you may be amazed that anyone would pass up a chance to see the games in person.
But you'd be foolish to claim that everyone who disagrees with you is wrong, stupid, or both.
The Greeks have a word for such presumptive arrogance. It's called hubris.