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The Globe and Mail

Olympic coverage earns mixed reviews at halfway mark

The 2012 Summer Games head into their second week of TV coverage consumed by a hot debate about live versus canned coverage. The best decision made by the Canadian consortium, of course, was to continue the tradition of going live with events. Canadian viewers are again afforded the luxury of watching live events combined with NBC's slick evening packages.

More than halfway to the finish, how has the broadcaster done? So far, it's mixed. The consortium's decision to go live has been a boon, but it has a downside. There is nothing more difficult in television than riding the tiger of live TV. For that reason, NBC prefers its safety net of taping events. All the mock sessions in a studio can't simulate absorbing the frantic pace of events and synthesizing them into a coherent narrative. Especially when the announcers have little or no résumé covering their events before.

Unfortunately, many of the consortium's on-air talents – particularly the analysts– are attractive former Canadian athletic heroes parachuted into their chairs instead of the veteran voices that typified CBC coverage. Growing your own timber is fine, but don't ask your pitchers to start their careers in the World Series.

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The most problematic area for the consortium has been in the field. In the hurly-burly of breaking events, analysis has too often been replaced by a noxious mix of cheer-leading and banal self-realization pap. Seemingly mortified to allow dead air – the punctuation that makes BBC coverage brilliant – the inexperienced analysts have filled the air with overheated prose.

Typical was the verbal onslaught from former rower Barney Williams who talked the rowing races into submission. "Keep your foot on the pedal, Lesley," he exhorted Lesley Thompson-Willie during the women's eights final. "Do not let the Americans get away." Then, "This crew is trained to the point where they love pain, and now they must attack the pain." And, "Andréanne Morin is setting such a good rhythm in the stroke seat, and the rhythm is reckless abandon!"

Williams was hardly alone in the first week. Joanne Malar was awash in the swimming competition, rescued only by the coherent analysis of Dr. Greg Wells, who's been a star of the consortium's coverage. Why not just mic the coach if all you're doing is cheering? Gymnast Kyle Shewfelt, working beside Ron Burgundy …er, Rod Black, has steadied himself the onslaught of pontifications from his partner.

The arrival Friday of the veteran track crew of Gord Miller, Michael Smith and Dave Moorcroft has settled down the rhetoric somewhat. The first couple of days at track coverage have been superb. Fatigue has also exhausted the flow of over-exuberance. The irony is that, having gained the experience, most of the consortium's voices will not be able to take advantage since CBC has won the rights to the next two Games.

Veteran hosts Brian Williams, James Duthie and Jennifer Hedger have handled the flow of news, studio guests and tape pieces capably. There were high hopes for Catriona Le May Doan working the studio during the day, but it's clear that this was an Olympics too soon for her in such a high-profile role. The less said about the gong show of Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole the better, except that at a time that's meant to be about the athletes, they can't ignore the urge to make it about themselves.

A few more high points. As mentioned, Dr. Wells has been the soul of brevity. In 90 seconds he cogently analyzed the technical changes Canadian swimmer Brent Hayden made between the semis and the finals to win a silver.

Blue Jays host Jamie Campbell has married well with Curt Harnett in indoor cycling after a less successful start in road racing. Radio voice Eric Smith has done a fine job calling boxing beside the voluble Russ Anber. Paul Romanuk, who lives in Britain, did well to not try selling weightlifting as if it were the Second Coming. Many of the pre-produced personality items have been touching.

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Finally, with a few exceptions, the producers have distributed the product well over the channels of the consortium (best watched on the Mosaic channel). These were not the smaller, more manageable Winter Games in Vancouver – contested on home soil – but a sprawling beast extending over dozens of venues and events happening simultaneously.

Rarely were the producers caught out on a Canadian medal chance. Although there was some question Saturday as to why they went with women's beach volleyball involving non-Canadian teams while the heptathlon – with two Canadians contending – was barely followed on the main channels.

Having covered Olympics, we know how tough it is taking your act on the road, particularly in sports that you've never covered to any extent. Programs break down, printers don't work, signals go screwy. All things considered, the consortium gets a 6.5 out of 10 for its start.

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