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On old-school television critic who’s enjoying his Winter Olympics viewing experience

I know what I should be writing about today.

I should be complaining about NBC’s decision to tape delay Winter Olympics events in prime time, even though the network’s canny packaging of the Vancouver games has resulted in more than half of all Americans watching the games on one of the network’s outlets.

I should be upset that NBC aired the U.S.-vs.-Canada hockey matchup on cable channel MSNBC Sunday instead of the big stage of the broadcast network, despite the notion that an hours-long game would probably unfold better on a cable channel than in the run-and-gun format of the prime-time broadcasts.

And I should be complaining about jingoism among the NBC types, especially the folks on the Today show, who seemingly have never met a touching story about a U.S. athlete that they can’t spend long, uncomfortable minutes dissecting in thick sweaters and snow gear.

But it’s tough to write that stuff because, to be honest, I’m really enjoying NBC’s Winter Olympics coverage.

In part, I admit, it’s because I’m not a big enough fan to follow events online and know the result of many sports I’m watching in prime time. So some results are surprise and even those I’ve known in advance have been a thrill to actually witness.

What we’ve learned from this year’s Olympics is that the tape-delay issues matter less than victories by American athletes for boosting ratings. The inspired performances of Apolo Ohno, Lindsay Vonn, Bode Miller and the U.S. hockey team have done more to boost NBC’s viewership – pulling in wide swaths of casual viewers similarly untethered to of-the-moment results information – than the lack of live action may have repelled hardcore fans.

Doesn’t hurt that the network has also convened some of the best announcers in the game for this moment – from Al Michaels returning to help cover another Winter Olympics 30 years after his legendary work calling the “Miracle on Ice” victory of a scrappy U.S. team against Russia in 1980, to ace analysts such as Scott Hamilton and the ever-professional Bob Costas anchoring it all.

It also feels like something else is at work here; a shift in the way we see such TV events.

Because in a media world increasingly divided into to smaller and tinier niches, the Olympics represents one of the last big stages left – a rareified place where all of the nation’s attention is focused at once. These days, some buddies may have caught a few moments of the last NBA game or overheard the guys on Pardon the Interruption lampooning Tiger Woods latest mea culpa.

But at a time when everyone seems jacked into their own individualized media experience, it is hard to underestimate the new novelty of a sporting event which captures so much of today’s television landscape for so long.

I’ve almost forgotten what it was like to hear everyone around the office dissecting the same shared prime-time moment from the night before – whether it was U.S. figure skater Evan Lysacek sending the Russians into days of grousing by snatching victory with a well-executed program or Ohno piling up the medals to become the most-decorated Winter Olympian of all time.

No doubt, there have been missteps. My friend and fellow media critic David Zurawik of the Baltimore Sun has written a chilling column on how NBC has failed to fully explore the circumstances of how Georgian luger Nodar Kumarishtavili was killed during a practice run.

And other critics have taken shots at news anchors such as Brian Williams trying to deliver reports on war in Afghanistan and other pressing matters from the sweeping vistas of the Olympic compounds.

Still, this year’s Winter Olympics has remained a unique showcase for athletic achievement and communal TV viewing that doesn’t come around all that often. Can you blame an old school TV critic for being seduced by a shrinking medium suddenly turned massive once again?

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed, at www.blogs.tampabay.com/media.
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