Thursday, August 9, 2012

One Step Forward, But Only For Dish and Direct TV Folks... Everyone Else, Two Steps Back

Have you noticed how, during NBC’s coverage of Olympic figure skating events, they almost never use dissolve transitions between cameras or when coming back from a feature (aka “fluff piece”)? Instead they use the more abrupt transitions that are simply called “cuts”?

The same thing is done with their coverage of Olympic gymnastics, which is what reminded me to bring it up. The reason for cuts-only? Both involve veteran producer/director David Michaels... who hates using them. In these particular cases, at least.

I spoke with him on several occasions while researching Skating on Air, and learned that Michaels is nothing if not determined to show that these are SPORTS. Nitty-gritty, pulse-pounding, all caps SPORTS that should never be mistaken for anything else just because sparkles may be involved in their execution. Whether it’s the carve of the blade into the ice or the thump-and-squeak of hands grasping wooden beams or bars, he wants you to hear their efforts. With cameras providing tight enough shots to witness the sweat beading on their faces, he wants you to see their yearning for perfection. And as for the aforementioned dissolve transitions... I sensed he sees them as too soft, too pretty, too easy to mislead people into thinking they’re watching video loops of music box dancers pirouetting endlessly out there.

Anyway, as someone with producer/director experience myself (albeit on a much, much smaller scale), the cuts-only thing bugs me. So I got on Facebook, asked if it bugged anyone else... and discovered that there were MANY things bugging my fellow Olympics-watchers in the USA. And much of it reminds me of “our” complaints about figure skating coverage during the Winter Games...

 Not enough coverage of sport of choice.

 Not enough complete coverage of sport of choice (too choppy).

Eurosport’s coverage is better.

 Can’t stand the commentating.

So it would seem that across the board, niche sports—that is, most any sport that is NOT American football, baseball, or basketball—are difficult to present in a fanbase-pleasing manner. Ideally this is where online viewing options come in to pick up the slack, especially those that offer wall-to-wall, commentator-less coverage like they seem to do for all Olympic sports, for free, at and for a fee at hubs such as and, um, what was the other one?

Oh wait—there hardly appears to be another option at this point in the U.S. In the past several years, Universal Sports filled a lot of coverage gaps for those of us that were fortunate enough to have it on our cable system by way of an over-the-air NBC subchannel. But when the machinations of the network changed, taking U-Sports off the subchannels and putting it exclusively on cable and satellite providers (Direct TV and now Dish Network being its only two major carriers to date), some turned to the channel’s online subscription service for their skating fix.

Now, apparently, that’s gone away too: a look at U-sports’s current FAQ-Authentication page  indicates that (as of July 27, 2012) "all live streaming events and full event replays will only be available exclusively to DIRECTV and DISH customers with Universal Sports as part of their television package. These events will no longer be offered for sale online, but will be free to users who verify their subscriptions on our website.”

In other words, we’re now at a point where most of us can’t pay for skating coverage even if it’s available, and even if we wish to do so! And those that can are already able to access U-Sports on their TV!!

I’m not ignoring Ice Network in this equation; for the most part, it has served me well over the past few years and I welcome it in this post-ABC/ESPN era. But as I understand it, that’s not the case with everyone. Some have trouble getting a live stream from it. Some have blackout issues because of where they live. Some simply can’t afford it—the $40 it cost last year may be a good deal, but it could be needed much more for an electric bill or a bag of groceries for someone on a fixed (or unemployed) income.

Was a better deal in the past than I honestly don’t recall, as I was already on IceNet when U-Sports started its subscription service. But unless you happen to be with DIRECTV and DISH (or another service that adds U-Sports in the near future), it’s a moot point for now. Just what figure skating needs at this point, right? Another reason for past and developing fans to give up and tune out.

How do YOU plan to follow along this fall? Were you counting on the U-Sports online service? Will Ice Network meet your needs? Let’s hope U.S. Figure Skating and the ISU can find the work-around necessary to get the audience growing again... the only thing more frustrating than “spotty” coverage of a beloved Olympic sport is no coverage at all.

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