The Olympics Begin on NBC With Abstract Imagery, Drones and Dancing
The opening ceremony of the Olympics is always a real-time visual puzzle, full of abstract images and figurative dances saying something – I guess – about global ideals and national character. But you didn’t need a decoder ring to unravel the symbolism of the understated spectacle that kicked off the Tokyo Games.
Video animation dived down and focused on the image of a seed. On the ground, a lone figure stood in a green spotlight, supported by the shadow of an unfurling sprout. Fluid lights rippled across the field, mimicking the flow of blood. There was a video of empty cityscapes and athletes training in solitude.
You get the idea: life. Life turned upside down, persistent, nevertheless pushed to express itself.
But there was a powerful counterimage to the show, expressed in absence and negative space. Behind all the artistry were the banks and bleachers of a largely depopulated stadium, representing – not at all in an abstract way – the lingering danger to a world and a host city, still grappling with a Covid pandemic. 19 which is not finished and not retreating everywhere as well. The Japanese flag raised the ceremonial pole against a ghostly background of empty seats.
With few spectators, this ceremony and these Games are even more of a television event than they usually are. And these images communicated the tension for both the host and the broadcaster. Is this year’s Olympic spirit one of resilience or of pride? Is NBC covering – and participating in – a celebration or disaster?
There were indications of both at the same time. The international athletes, who usually join the parade of nations to massive cheers, entered a calm stadium, smiling eyes while wearing masks in festive national colors.
It wasn’t the boisterous comeback party we could have hoped for a year ago, nor the retirement we might have expected. It was a halfway ceremony, transitional for a moment halfway, transitional, precarious.
And for NBC, covering the ceremony live for American morning television, it meant an awkward balancing act for an event it used to cover as an expensive party.
After a one-year postponement – the ubiquitous ‘Tokyo 2020’ logo, no typo, was a constant reminder – the Games began over objections from most people in Japan, fearing a superspreader event as the country struggled. to keep Covid under control. These Games are something much of the world needed and the last thing many in today’s host city wanted.
There have been controversies in and about other Olympic Games; there has already been controversy about this. But this time around, the existence of these Games themselves is the biggest controversy – one that NBC is inevitably involved in.
One of the main reasons the Games move forward is money – the billions that would be lost if canceled or postponed. A big source of this money is television. And the main Olympics television partner is NBC Universal. Like the life force visualized in the opening performance, corporate money pulses behind everything the Games do.
This leaves NBC to cover as a reportage of the Olympics which it broadcasts and funds as entertainment. And that left the network’s morning presenters, Savannah Guthrie and Mike Tirico, juggling tone and focus, trying to meet the moment without disappointing the audience he wanted to tune in for two weeks.
Judging from the morning coverage, one strategy will be to focus on the athlete wellness stories. “When you stay focused on them, when you think they’re finally getting their moment,” Guthrie said before the ceremony, “I think that’s why we’re always so excited to be here.”
And look, who wouldn’t rather focus on sports during the Olympics? Who doesn’t want to loosen up, have some fun and give these athletes their hard-earned attention?
We’ve been through a lot, after all. The ceremony included a deeply moving image of personalities solo on the pitch, training together but separately. It brought back a flood of feelings from the past year, memories of isolation and postponing plans and trying to keep hopes and plans alive. Upon entering the US Olympic team, NBC listened to live commentary from flagship bearers Sue Bird and Eddy Alvarez. “I know our country is going through a difficult time right now,” said Bird, “but right now we all feel united and it’s amazing.”
Even what only concerned the athletes at this ceremony did not only concern the athletes.
This resulted in some dissonant moments. As India took the field in the Parade of Nations, Tirico noted the country’s devastation during the recent wave of the pandemic. But as it was tracked by Indonesia, no mention was made that this populous country had recently reached record levels of Covid cases and deaths. “Badminton is big in Indonesia!” said Guthrie. “Very popular!”
It is possible, if not inevitable, to both love these Games and fear them. But it will also be a test for NBC as a medium not to use the Olympians to avoid the Olympics.
Reality will prevail despite everything, in more than one way. As the parade of nations continued, NBC put in a few delegations – sorry, Haiti; better luck next time Vanuatu – picture in picture with the commercials (full of cheerful, unmasked faces) during commercial breaks. These included an anime spot for Taco Bell, a cross-cultural reminder that the Olympics, at the end of the day, are big business.
But there were still priceless moments. The ceremony also offered us a hovering globe made up of light points from 1,800 drones; a torch relay involving athletes, health workers and a group of children representing areas of Japan devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami; and tennis star Naomi Osaka lighting the Olympic cauldron atop a stylized Mount Fuji.
All one-year Olympics are required to produce highlights. The challenge for NBC will be to capture it all with the parts, in Games that aren’t just games.
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