"Are you the ultimate fan?"
Dave Randorf, studio host for Canada's Olympic Broadcast Consortium, is posing this question to engage viewers in a contest. But it's also a fitting query for the host himself. It's difficult to tell where the Olympic Games end and O Canada begins when it comes to this year's TV coverage.
Enthusiastic rower-turned-analyst Barney Williams, for example, exhorted Canada's cox Lesley Thompson Willie: "Keep your foot on the pedal ... Do not let the Americans get away!" More subtle are constant references to "we" and "ours" by personalities paid to be observers, not patriot cheerleaders. In her excitement to include Canada in the winners' circle, swimming analyst Joanne Malar even had Olympic superstar Michael Phelps inadvertently swimming for Team Canada.
All of this sets the teeth of veteran journalists on edge. A generation ago, when print still dominated, using the first-person would have brought scorn. But TV and digital have shifted the focus of Olympics coverage – it's about pumping up the volume, not pushing the facts.
And that seems to be just fine with Canadian viewers. If not quite up to the standard of the Vancouver 2010 Games, this summer's ratings have been stellar – on par with NHL playoffs, the gold standard for Canadian sports ratings. Even taped-delayed productions are up as much as 2 million over the 2008 Beijing Games.
The Consortium suits haven't missed the payoff of patriotism either. No sooner had the ball settled in the back of France's net to bring Canada a bronze in women's soccer than Bell Media, a consortium partner, was banging the drum for them. "Bell Media wishes to extend our sincere congratulations to Canada's women's soccer team," stated a quick-send press release. "Your efforts and passion have captivated and inspired an entire nation."
This homerism is in contrast to the CBC standard stretching back from Beijing. Many of its veteran announcers – Steve Armitage, Don Wittman and Brian Williams – called it as they saw it. By contrast, CTV and Sportsnet are virtual newcomers to audiences in many of the events they cover. They want cred too, but of a different sort: an emotional connection with advertisers and viewers.
What has been lost in this blurring of coverage and propaganda? Some observers would say everything. But with massive price tags on broadcast rights (the Consortium paid $150-million for the 2010/2012 Games) the sun has set on such fine distinctions.
As private enterprise, the Consortium is not going to tarnish advertisers' investment with stories on favourites who fail and boxing decisions that seem as crooked as a dog's hind leg.
Media concentration, political opportunism and corporate involvement have made objectivity like Edsel tail fins – a nostalgic symbol of a time now past. The future, clearly, is with the fans.