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Monday, November 10, 2008

NBC Documentary on the 2008 Paralympics

Yesterday NBC broadcast the 90 minute documentary about the 2008 Paralympic Games. The broadcast was a series of biographical stories about American Paralympians. For the most part, the documentary did not present viewers with mindless emotional "feel good stories" that dominate adaptive adaptive sports reporting. Yes, overcoming was a major theme throughout the documentary but this is typical of sports documentaries. Three primary problems undermined the documentary. First, the sound track was dreadful. The music firmly fit into the "inspirational" genre and was at direct odds with the statements made by the Paralympians. There is not a chance such a musical score would ever appear on any other sports documentary. Second, at no point did the documentary delve into the rules, categories, and controversy that surround the competition. Nor was there any discussion of how costly and cutting edge the technology utilized by the athletes. Assuming most people had no exposure to adaptive sports, the viewer simply cannot appreciate or begin the grasp the athletic accomplishments of those portrayed. Third, the biographical segments focused far too much on how the athletes were disabled. To me, this was beside the point. I tuned in to see world class athletes compete not discuss their respective disability.

The power of the documentary can be squarely placed on the articulate and incisive comments by the athletes themselves. For instance, Cheri Blauwet, was particularly impressive. Frankly I thought I would never see the day when I heard someone say on television that "disability is a social construct". I was also impressed by a scene in which an amputee Paralympian is shown talking to school children. The woman in question allowed the kids to hold and pass around her prostheses. The look of wonder and awe on the face of the children is priceless. Rather than perceiving disability as a negative, the kids were impressed and will no doubt think of amputees as being cool.

Given the right kind of exposure, I think the Paralympics could become a mainstream sport. There are many practical and social impediments that would need to be overcome. As pointed out in a column in the Los Angeles Times, the practical problems that prevent the Paralympics of getting any media coverage include the timing and cost. The Paralympics take place after the Olympics Games and the people that cover sports are tired. Budgets are spent and the football and baseball seasons set to dominate all reporting. While I have no ready answer for these logistical issues, I suspect they can be resolved. It is the social reluctance to devote the time and space to adaptive sports reporting that is the real problem. Selling adaptive sports to those who have no clue as to the intense nature of the field is not easy. The stereotypical question asked is who wants to see a bunch of disabled people compete? I suggest for those that ask this question to watch the X-Games. Last winter mono ski races were included for the first time. The coverage was excellent and the races were extremely exciting and popular. The crowds were enthusiastic and imagery captivating. In short, adaptive sports have great potential and NBC took a very small step toward broadcasting viewing that is gripping.

9 comments:

yanub said...

I see no reason at all for American broadcasters to delay broadcasting of the Paralympics. Other nations, with just as many competing sports, show them in real time. And I am not going to be watching some "very special" compilation shoehorned into deadtime months later. Everyone else on the web was able to talk about the games as they were happening. Everyone else is able to know the athletes, not just from their own countries, but to know who the elite are globally. American broadcasters should be ashamed of themselves.

william Peace said...

Yanub, You will not get an argument from me. I agree the Paralympics should be aired when they happen on mainstream TV. This will not happen in the near future because football and baseball dominate all sports reporting. At least with the internet the games can be seen when they are going on. I also think the inclusion of mono skiers at the X Games was a major step forward. Exposure is what is desperately needed and that will yield viewer demand.

Kay Olson said...

I found the flaws you mention about the documentary to be my central critiques too. But I do think sport is a natural way for ability/disability to be discussed without prejudice. It didn't happen successfully in this broadcast, but watch any regular Olympic coverage, or Ironman triathalon coverage, or ice skating finals, etc., and the narrators always do special clips on a few athletes that have faced difficulties to get to that level of competition. Someone's mom dies two weeks before finals, a coach gets cancer, the athlete had knee surgery nine weeks ago, they were born with a club foot, etc.

Disability is woven into regular sports coverage as part of championship and ability. I have hopes that just as sports commentators have come a long way in how they speak about and treat female athletes, with less patronization and sexism, they will also come to cover disabled athletes with less patronization and ableism.

william Peace said...

Kay, All sport reporting leaves much to be desired. I have always found the triumph over adversity theme boring and overly simplistic. I have high hopes for the future of adaptive sports. I think the X-Games last winter provide a template for how to cover adaptive sports. I was in New Hampshire skiing when the X Games were broadcast. As I sat in a lodge drinking a beer I was delighted to see many eyes glued to the TV. What drew people was the skill mono skiers possessed and a brief explanation of the adaptive skis used.

Kay Olson said...

All sport reporting leaves much to be desired. I have always found the triumph over adversity theme boring and overly simplistic.

See, and for me, sports writing is the one genre of writing where I can stand the inspirational, triumph over adversity theme. I don't mind coverage of the guy whose team just got whipped saying, "Well, our defense just didn't come together and Bob's injury in the third quarter didn't help either, but we'll win the next one in Green Bay." To me, that's the heart of sports reporting and if there's anywhere that disabled people should be able to easily fit into the narrative, it would be this genre where you could tweak the disability stereotype out and just look at the goals and accomplishments of sport.

william Peace said...

Kay, As always, your observations are interesting. The narrative found in sport reporting, i.e. triumph over adversity, does indeed suit disability well. It is perhaps a way to introduce disability related themes. I am just not enamored with the typical sport formula--the story line never changes and new individuals are simply plugged in. Have you ever seen the X Games? I like the way the games are telecast.

Kay Olson said...

Yes, it shows promise as an introduction to disability themes in a very general setting -- that's my primary point. I'm not exactly enamored with the typical sports formula either, but I have definitely seen where it presents possibilities for incorporating different bodies into the mainstream coverage. And it does seem to be the location for some interesting disability-related dialogue -- Casey Martin, Oscar Pistorius, even Muhammad Ali.

I have not seen any X Games coverage. I'll have to keep my eyes open for that.

william Peace said...

Kay, The winter X Games will be held on January 22, 2009. The games will be in Aspen and broadcast on ESPN. According to USA Today, for the first time male and female competitors will be paid the same amount for winning a gold medal. This sort of equality is one of the reasons I am drawn to this event. Of course, it helps that the visuals are awesome. The games are worth watching.

Kay Olson said...

Great, I've put it on my calendar.