NBC’s coverage of the Opening Ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, was the least obnoxious opening-ceremony coverage I’ve seen in a very long time. There were moments when the taped broadcast even became a model of how to do this kind of after-the-fact presentation. Katie Couric and Mike Tirico’s color commentary (aided, of course, by the behind-the-scenes efforts of the filmmakers, technicians, and researchers) was marked by intelligence and restraint, and there was a section in the middle that turned into something like literary or visual art analysis applied to live news coverage. It was must-see TV, apart from the historic value of seeing Kim Jong-un’s sister Kim Yo-jong, the first immediate member of North Korea’s ruling family to visit South Korea since 1953, and Vice-President Mike Pence petulantly refusing to stand for the country that his boss has been baiting for over a year now. (If South Korea can swallow its animosity for five minutes, surely we can, too.) I learned a lot and was rarely irritated, bored, or mystified, which almost never happens when I watch these things. I don’t know exactly what the sweet spot is here, but more often than not, NBC hit it.
That’s rather remarkable, considering that the network has treated the Olympics as fodder for after-the-fact entertainment product for decades now. Ever since the Los Angeles Summer Games of 1984, when John Williams’s Spielbergian orchestral theme was first introduced, there’s been a gradual move toward treating the Olympic Games as raw footage for shrink-wrapped melodrama. Supposedly, internal studies said that most viewers, but women especially, wouldn’t care about the Games unless they were presented as a soap opera about people overcoming adversity and coming to terms with their pasts; the sheer number of women who watch everything football-related as well as figure skating should’ve put the lie to that, but it has persisted.
Things really took a turn for the annoying during the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, where the mandate was to alternate engrossing moments of competition between the world’s best athletes with up-close-and-personal montages that tried to boil their lives down to three or four factoids, of the sort you’d expect to see in the pilot of a fictional drama. (She’s from Colorado, she loves her mom, her brother has a rare blood disease, she became interested in skiing after watching a James Bond film, etc.) It was a logical if misguided attempt to make do with a billion-dollar investment that was increasingly being undermined by the internet, which delivered live results many hours before American broadcasters could air footage, but the result ended up condescending to the Olympics itself, by behaving as if one of the most innately thrilling and beautiful spectacles in the history of TV — a peaceful showdown between athletic avatars of the world’s nations — was actually boring, and desperately needed to be spiced up and made “relatable.” Alongside that trend, coverage of opening ceremonies has typically operated along the sliding scale of awkward to painful. Commentators talked nonstop when silence would have been preferable, over-explained things that were self-evident while ignoring things that weren’t, and offered stereotypical observations about certain countries that might as well have been suggested by whoever was running the Department of Defense at the time.
During Friday night’s broadcast, there were moments that fell in line with the usual NBC Olympics mandate, such as the seven-minute montage narrated by Sterling K. Brown that felt like the opening section of one of those drama pilots that thinks we won’t care about the characters unless a narrator, exciting and/or sentimental music, and aggressive editing are pushing our buttons. And the coverage of the parade of international athletes once again put the United States in the foreground and shoved the rest of the world in the background. (I realize that a lot of people want this from U.S. coverage of the Games, but it always struck me as a tendency that’s contrary to their spirit.) But the rest of the coverage was mostly smart and judicious, save for a few moments early on where it seemed as if the old, bad NBC model would dominate, as when NBC Sports Asia analyst Joshua Cooper Ramo said, “Are these teams taking the first steps down a new and peaceful path, or is this the very last image of fellowship and hope before tragedy strikes the people of this peninsula? Hundreds and thousands, maybe millions of lives are at stake.” As if there were a possibility that the peninsula might perish in nuclear hellfire before the Zimbabwe team could make its entrance.
Overseen by executive producer Yang Jung-woong and actor-producer Song Seung-whan (who handled the ceremony’s on-the-ground elements, including the choreography and fireworks patterning), this was an elegant and simple spectacle executed on a grand scale. For the most part, the observations took their cues from the work itself, rather than trying to superimpose political or historical slants to flatter whatever preconceived notions American viewers might have. We learned about the origins of the yin-yang symbol and how it ended up on the South Korean flag, and how the idea of opposing forces being bound together in harmony has been built into Korean identity from the start. The patterns created onscreen by the arrangement of large numbers of performers, all moving in elaborate synchronized patterns, was amplified but never falsified by the camerawork, which stressed dynamic diagonal lines and circular or rippling motions. We learned about the cultural significance of the color white and the symbolic complexity of the snow tiger, and we saw how the choreography of dancers and drummers underlined the notion that all energy springs from the same source. Tirico, Couric, and their writers took American viewers to school in the best way, illuminating what we were seeing but not getting in the way of it. The contrast between the mostly excellent coverage of the event itself and the grasping and manipulative advertisements that surrounded it — all invariably tying individual discipline and achievement to Americans’ ability to buy things — could not have been more distinct. This wasn’t the platonic ideal of how to cover an event like this one, but it got a lot closer than anyone could’ve expected when they switched over to NBC at 8 p.m. Eastern on Friday night.