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Who’s killing the great athletes of Japan?


Japanese television coverage of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics amounted to 820 hours of total airtime on all the various terrestrial and satellite stations. This compares to about 500 hours for the Nagano Games. The main reason for the sizable increase is the growth of digital satellite channels and their need for content. But there were other factors that didn’t necessarily have to do with “demand” as we usually define it.

NHK’s BS1 channel broadcast the Games live round-the-clock for most of their duration, and NHK-G aired digests every day at irregular hours. More significantly, all the commercial networks sent crews and personalities whose reports were usually broadcast during the day or late at night. Almost all of the commercial TV content centered on Japanese participants, but while Japan sent 108 athletes to Salt Lake City, the bulk of the coverage focused on a handful of people, all familiar faces from past Olympics.

In the end, the main story was Japan’s poor showing, that is, its failure to win as many medals as the Japan Olympic Committee had hoped it would (10, to be exact). This story is actually a nonstory, since it is mainly a function of media overkill.

In other words, the “poor showing” was exacerbated by a huge mobilization of reporting resources and little to report: only two medals for 108 athletes, 820 hours of TV coverage and a media contingent that was second only to the Americans’ in size. If there was a gold medal for best joke of this Olympics, it would probably have been given to the veteran Dutch speed skater who remarked, upon seeing all the reporters, “Are we still in Japan?” By this token, Estonia, with only 18 athletes and an almost nonexistent media presence, was a huge winner, especially as its team took home three medals.

The reason for the overkill is more difficult to explain. The Olympics is a comparatively easy assignment. Video feeds of the actual events are provided to the various media, which means reporters are free to concentrate on the spectacle and human-interest stories. Athletes from all over the world are living and performing in a contained environment, and the media lives with them in this environment. Anywhere else in the world, if you want to interview or cover an athlete, you have to go through agents and all sorts of formalities, some of which may involve sizable fees. In Salt Lake City, you can simply walk up to one in the commons and ask for an interview.

Such coverage isn’t necessarily interesting in and of itself. One has to work to make it so. But given the fact that the Japanese TV crews in SLC were charged with sending something back that would interest the home viewers, they played it safe and all tried to interview speed skater Hiroyasu Shimizu, the only person who seemed assured of winning a medal. (Mogul skier Tae Satoya, the only other person to win a medal, is a full-time employee of Fuji TV, which is why most of the other networks didn’t cover her as much.)

To the aggravation of the assembled TV crews, Shimizu did his best to avoid them because he didn’t want to be distracted prior to his race. After he won the silver medal, you couldn’t shut him up, but until then the commercial stations had already wasted a lot of time just trying to get a comment out of him. None of them seemed to have any plans other than covering Shimizu.

A few print reporters went the extra analytical mile to conclude that maybe the overkill had an adverse effect on the Japanese athletes’ performance. There is something to be said about this, since Japanese seem to do worse when they are being scrutinized, but the scrutiny was so unequally distributed that it probably had little effect on the majority of the athletes.

Even if the networks had planned more imaginatively and diversified their coverage more liberally, it’s doubtful they would have come away with anything distinctive, because the people they sent weren’t there as reporters.

In order to give the appearance of distinguishing themselves from one another, the various networks hired topical talent as their Olympics representatives. Most of these stars aren’t even athletes, much less journalists. Fuji TV and TV Tokyo used hot young actors. TV Asahi hired a pop musician who also wrote a theme song for the network’s coverage. One of the TBS anchors was a noh actor. TV Asahi and Nihon TV shared Japan’s first family of baseball, the Nagashimas, and split the difference, with Asahi using bubbly Mina and NTV using bubble-brained Kazushige.

In the end, no one came out on top, which was to be expected and, given Japanese corporate revulsion toward outward shows of competitiveness, probably desired. But except for the opening and closing ceremonies, none of the individual Olympics broadcasts made much of a dent in the ratings, either. Perhaps the networks spread themselves too thin, but more likely the audience just wasn’t there in the first place.

After all, the “poor showing” was predicted by the media. Some might call this shooting oneself in the foot, but if you look upon the two-week Olympics TV binge as a carefree media junket rather than a genuine reporting assignment, things become a little clearer.

In that light, the scandals that characterized the SLC Games were a godsend, since they practically reported themselves. As a self-contained, self-perpetuating media event, the Olympics are near perfect. Who needs journalists, anyway?