Human interest stories and the Olympics go hand in hand.
Every two years, the world gets together for just over two weeks to watch the best athletes in the world compete in their various disciplines. For the competing athletes, it is a chance to test their skills at the pinnacle of their athletic careers against the best athletes in the world. For the competing nations, it is a chance to showcase their athletes to the world and to rouse up national pride back home for a sport or an athlete that a country made have never heard of before the Olympic Games began. This is where the media comes in and producers for the major cable networks that cover the Games have to decide what stories might draw interest to an audience that might not otherwise care about a particular sport or athlete.
Enter in the role of the human interest story. This particular method of reporting has been the approach of choice over the past two decades and has given television networks, especially here in the United States, a way to highlight athletes and to give them the “common man” appeal. Because, you see, it’s not simply enough to be the best in the world at a particular sport. You also must have a story to tell in order to make yourself interesting. At some point, you must have lost a mentor. At some point, you must have had to overcome adversity. At some point, you must have considered quitting the sport. At some point, you must have thought all was lost until some how, some way you realized that this was your one chance for glory.
Of course it does. NBC has carried every Summer Olympics since 1992 and every Winter Olympics since 2002. They know they have a winning formula for human interest stories. As cliched as it may be, NBC knows that if a viewer knows an athlete’s background and personal story then they will be much more likely to watch the athlete compete should he or she get to the finals of his or her discipline. It’s gotten to the point where you can almost predict the human interest pieces ahead of time. An unproven youngster going against the veterans. A veteran trying to finally break through on the world stage. An athlete in the twilight of his or her career trying to go out on top. Personal drama, injuries, and family issues are all fair game. Whatever helps NBC sell its athletes is what the network will do in order to get additional viewers to help the network’s ratings.
However, there are times where NBC goes too far. On Sunday, we saw one of those times.
American skier Bode Miller, competing in his final Olympic Games, ended up tying for bronze in the men’s super-G race. The medal gave Miller six total medals spread out over three Olympic Games and moved him into second place all-time for American alpine athletes. The time leading up to the Games had been difficult for Miller as he had been recovering from a left knee injury, had been involved in a nasty custody battle over his son, and had lost his brother, Chelone, who died from a seizure last April. Chelone was a snowboarder and was hoping to make his very first Olympic team.
After the race, Miller was interviewed by NBC correspondent Christin Cooper. Cooper asked Miller about his brother and Miller seemed to get emotional in his response. However, Cooper continued to ask Miller about his brother and she mentioned how it seemed like Miller was motioning to the sky before his race. It was at this point that Miller began to sob uncontrollably and he sank down on to his knees. The interview ended and Miller’s wife, Morgan, came out to embrace him as he was still visibly emotional.
Despite the fact that Cooper had received criticism for her line of questioning, Miller harbored no ill will toward her. Miller immediately defended Cooper via Twitter after the initial interview A day later, Miller talked about the interview with Matt Lauer. Miller responded to all the criticism of Cooper by saying:
“I have known Christin a long time, and she’s a sweetheart of a person. I know she didn’t mean to push. I don’t think she really anticipated what my reaction was going to be, and I think by the time she realized it, it was too late. I don’t blame her at all.”
In this regard, Miller is correct. It is not Cooper’s fault as she had no idea that Miller would react the way he did. No, the real people at fault here are the producers at NBC and their incessant need to spoon feed human interest stories to the viewing public. You know what’s an even better story than the tragic death of an athlete’s brother? How about the fact that the athlete just became the second best alpine skier in American history? How about the fact that this athlete just medaled in his third Olympic Games? How about the fact that, at age 36, Bode Miller just won a medal in what will most likely be his last Olympic race?
If those stories themselves aren’t compelling enough for the NBC producers then maybe they should head on over to Hollywood and work on a screenplay there. Because you don’t need to exploit an athlete’s personal tragedy in order to tell his or her story. All you need to do is tell the simple truth about him or her and the viewers will respond accordingly.
In other words, the viewers are a lot smarter than you give them credit for.