VANCOUVER—The XXI Winter Olympics will open tonight and the opening ceremonies’ three billion television viewers will hear plenty about the Games’ supposed ideals.
As the thousands of well-dressed athletes march into Vancouver’s BC Place, smiling and waving, there will be lofty talk about the patriotic pride this international competition evokes, about the brotherhood it fosters, the selflessness it demands.
But none of those qualities are what drives the Olympics’ popularity, what prods billions to watch. If they were all the 2010 Vancouver Games offered, its TV ratings would have trouble surpassing those for the National Hockey League.
No, the secret of the Olympics is simple: The networks that televise them have figured out how to get as many women as possible to watch.
Let’s face it, men are going to watch sports on TV. It’s in their DNA, particularly when there is a nationalistic component involved. And in February, frankly, there’s not much else that’s watchable. The NFL season is over (Why do you thinks the Winter Olympics are in February, not January?). Baseball hasn’t cranked up yet. March Madness is still a month away. The NBA is nowhere near a conclusion. And the NHL is, well, the NHL.
The genius of the American networks that have televised the Olympics over the decades is that they have kept a lot of those male eyes while managing to attract the eyeballs of women.
According to a 2008 survey by the United States Olympic Committee, the Olympic Games are the most popular sport among American women. A whopping 55 percent of them said the Games are their favorite, while another 39 percent cited the NFL.
“The Olympics,” said Christine Brennan, a columnist for USA Today, “are the Super Bowl for women.”
Sure, females might have a natural affinity for the grace and elegance of figure-skating. But how did television executives get them to care about ski-jumping, skeleton and speedskating?
They did it by employing, with ever more frequency, the “Up Close-and-Personal” template that ABC developed around the time a 1961 plane crash wiped out the American figure-skating team.
ABC noticed a ratings bump whenever it focused on the lost skaters and the inexperienced youngsters that replaced them. So they gave viewers even more to cry about.
It was a brilliant way to sell a still-parochial American public on a whole slew of exotic sports that no one but “Wide World of Sports” aficionados had ever witnessed. ABC’s resident programming genius, Roone Arledge, quickly discovered that the more we were emotionally involved, the more he could make us cry, cheer and emote, the more we watched.
The formula proved to be a ratings bonanza. Increased ratings meant increased commercial rates, increased sponsorships, and increased corporate involvement. The International Olympic Committee became financially dependent on U.S. TV.
So every four years we learned who had cancer, who had just lost a parent, who had recently given birth, who had been abused as a child, who had risen from poverty, who had suffered an injury so severe that it jeopardized their athletic futures.
And we lapped it up, consuming the stories as fast and as eagerly as we did the officially sanctioned Olympics beer.
By the mid-1970s, for American TV viewers at least, the Olympics had become All Redemption All the Time.
Think about it. The athletes we recall most vividly are those whose stories touched us most effectively, most movingly—the underdog 1980 U.S. hockey team; its goalie, Jim Craig, scanning the crowd for his recently widowed father; oft-disappointed speed skater Dan Jansen finally winning a gold.
And so for the next 17 days, U.S viewers will be inundated with weepy tales of personal, physical and professional comebacks. Did you know Bobsled driver Steven Holcomb was legally blind? Did you know Speed skater Allison Baver was told she’d never skate again? Did you know skier Lindsay Vonn was in so much pain that two days before the Games began she wasn’t sure she’d compete. This skater was cheated four years ago. This luger just lost her mother. This hockey star has cancer. This Indian ski-jumper got lost en route to Vancouver.
Have your tissues handy.
And make sure they’re made by an Olympic sponsor.