Monday, February 17, 2014

What Am I Watching?

Like many on this globe, I’ve had the XXII Olympic Winter Games from Sochi on as a more or less uninterrupted accompaniment to household activities for the last week.

Most of the time I’m not fully focused on whichever of the 98 events in 15 different disciplines is on, although once in a while I’ll stop what I’m doing to watch in response to an excited announcer’s reaction or to catch the conclusion of whatever competition is playing out.

Curling strangely keeps my attention, the back-and-forth strategy somehow appealing to me (and reminding me of other two-player games). Hockey does, too, of course. While curling isn’t perhaps an obvious one to figure out for those unfamiliar with the sport, I understand it well enough to recognize what is happening at any given moment, and thus both of those sports require little extra explanation for me.

Last night I became engaged for a while by women’s snowboard cross, one of the events in the snowboarding discipline for which it also seemed immediately apparent what was going on. There were a series of races, with the winners winning and the losers losing. Fast and exciting, with little need to know who was who to get a kind of visceral enjoyment from viewing.

However, for many of the events it is much more difficult to know how performances are measured. As I write I have on something called “Men’s Aerials,” an event I thought at first was part of the “ski jumping” discipline but after looking it up I see it is part of “freestyle skiing.”

There are spectacular jumps with judges awarding points, but I have no idea what a good score is and what a bad score is, and only when a poor fellow crash lands do I know for certain his chances for medaling have decreased.

Sports like these make me think a little of poker’s constant struggle to attract non-poker audiences and the various experiments tried over the years to create “must see” television out of poker cash games or tournaments.

Those who televise the Olympics have established a complicated strategy for presenting unfamiliar sports, one that involves all sorts of editing choices that mix live and delayed programming, combinations of in-game commentary, event-related features, and interviews, and of course the profiles of athletes that have become a hallmark of Olympic narrative-creation. They aren’t always on target, but the programmers have a plan and it generally works for a lot of us.

On Friday I was referencing one recent poker-related debate on Twitter. Last week there was another one concerning whether or not people watch poker on television primarily to learn more about how to play or for other reasons. While a minority maintained education to be the biggest draw, most seemed to suggest that was less of a priority than simply to be entertained (by the competition, the players, the spectacle, and so on).

It’s difficult -- and unfair, really -- to compare the Olympics to other sports or types of programming. And while I might be learning a little bit about these various disciplines and the particular events, I know that primarily what I’m experiencing when I watch is a pleasurable form of distraction that is engaging in an ephemeral way.

When poker was at its most popular on television (nearly a decade ago), it provided similar, fleeting thrills that captured an audience of both players and non-players, watching -- and being compelled to watch -- for all sorts of reasons.

That’s hard to do anymore, I think (again for all sorts of reasons).

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