1. Archive

Sorry, NBC, life is not a light beer commercial

I once knew a political spin doctor certain he could get his candidate elected on the strength of a campaign ad that resembled a light beer commercial _ one of those funny spots where the men always do stupid things, women wear only bikinis, and it's up to the animals to talk sense. The spin doctor's candidate went on to win, poor thing. His time in office was, alas, not at all like a light _ or, rather, Lite _ beer ad. By the time he left office, nobody was laughing.

I have been watching the Olympics. I sometimes walk the dog during the dull parts _ this is usually at dusk, when the heat of the day has broken _ and I can say that everyone else on my street also is watching. The dog and I peer through every open living room window. In nearly every room, the Games flicker and glow on the screen.

We have all learned the same thing from watching _ that life is not a Lite beer commercial. It is mostly sorrow and loss marked by occasional victories that glow stubbornly against the night. A plane blew up over the Atlantic as the Games began and killed 230 people. A bomb went off in an Atlanta park early Saturday causing the deaths of two people and injuring another hundred.

The Games have continued. Friends who have gone to this grand event just two hours by air from Tampa have come home thrilled by the competition but stunned by the prices. I wouldn't know. Except for the terrible interlude of the Atlanta bombing, the Games I have seen on TV have left me thinking the Olympics is one big Lite beer commercial _ shot through a gauzy camera lens, like the kind they train on porn magazine models so the moles and cellulite are invisible.

In the Lite beer version, the Americans are always the stars of the Games, and most of the time they win. Sitting at home, you think they're winning right in front of your eyes, so your heart pounds in perfect measure with the collective heart of the crowd in the stands on TV. Then you find out about this concept on TV called "live on tape," which is not to be confused with the view through your living room window, in which what you see is really there, at that moment. Live on tape means it happened sometime in the presumably recent past, only it has been repackaged so that when you watch it you're fooled into thinking it's just like the view out your window.

They do to you what the spin doctors do when they make their ads: They manipulate events to manipulate you. So you were left to wonder not only why those teenage girl gymnasts on the U.S. team had voices like chipmunks, but why it was that anybody let them perform so far past their bedtime _ when they had had their great victory five hours before, just after the dinner hour.

NBC did not do this for the greater glory of sport. The network did this to make more dough. The higher the ratings, the higher the ad rates.

A curious turnabout occurred: While NBC was producing the Cliffs Notes version of the Olympics, some of the TV spots had the look of real life. They contained some of the strange faces from strange countries that most of us are too dumb to find on a map _ but who are heroes in their own lands, even if they didn't win in Atlanta.

It's a mighty strange day when the ads are better than the _ I use the word loosely _ journalism. But even bad journalism can teach you something. I started listening much more closely over the weekend and heard Bob Costas talk, finally, about the events he was introducing in the past tense. It was the closest anybody came to owning up to what was real and what was Memorex.

I guess it's too much to hope that the Olympics might be told on TV through the lens by which it was meant to be viewed: as a story not about celebrity endorsements and medal counts, but about the diversity of nations and honest competition and cooperation. Big words. Big meaning. Too big apparently for the small screen.