Does 'NBC' Stand for 'Nearly Bare Competitors'?

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The stars of NBC's Olympic broadcast: Women's beach volleyball

It's a small world, or at least a small Olympics. Miraculously, despite the massive amounts of sport fighting for television space, NBC and its affiliate cable networks somehow still manage to get women's beach volleyball on the air whenever I turn the Games on.

This morning, for instance, the bikinied Amazons of Australia were taking on the Valkyries of... Germany? If my geographic memory serves, Deutschland hasn't had access to more than a stretch of chilly northern coastline since the Third Reich, but who knows? Maybe those lithe young Teutonic women take to the banks of the Rhine every weekend to practice their sets and spikes. Or maybe the athletic powers that be in Germany are just wise to what gets you on Olympic TV: skin, skin, skin.

From the moment that Sydney floated that flaming UFO they call a torch up the space-age waterfall at the opening ceremonies, it acknowledged the two forces that drive TV's attention at the Games: heat and water. No matter how many weights are being lifted or air rifles being shot, you can bet you're far more likely to see a six-foot blonde rectifying a wedgie in front of a strategically placed camera.

Forget Higher, Faster, Stronger. Where TV is concerned, Barer, Buffer, Tanner is what recoups those steep broadcast-rights fees. Hence, too, the tremendous amount of time NBC has spent in the pool so far, offering plenty of equal-opportunity beefcake shots of men's swimming. (Although I'm sure no one cleared those fancy-fangled, body-obscuring new bodysuits with the network programmers.) And hence the addition of the ungodly synchronized diving event, because two chiseled bodies jumping off a platform are always better than one.

On balance, though, anything that encourages the network to broadcast an actual sporting competition during the Olympics is something of a plus. This year, the trend toward packaging the Games as a lugubrious newsmagazine of human-interest features has been exacerbated by the fact that, owing to time-zone differences, all events have concluded approximately two weeks before their broadcast in the States. (Still, would it have killed NBC to air some live coverage on MSNBC or CNBC? Really, the world would have survived a couple fewer broadcasts of "Hardball With Chris Matthews.")

To be fair, an important part of airing the Olympics in prime time is appealing to the broader audience; to wit, the audience that doesn't really want to watch sports. But just as the biography format has multiplied across cable TV since the Atlanta Olympics, so have the sappy athlete bios metastasized, produced more ham-handedly and with cornier staged poses than ever. Is this the Olympics or "VH1's Behind the Olympics"?

For those not interested in the great Olympic soap opera, the best option is perhaps to tape the daytime coverage on MSNBC and watch it at night, when it will be no less fresh than the umpteen-hours tape-delayed sports on NBC. Perhaps because it is possible to airlift only so many human-interest reporters to Australia, the daytime coverage is remarkably light on Wide World of Tragedy features; shockingly, it's often possible to watch entire innings of softball games, heats of rowing and water-polo games without seeing someone overcome a miserable orphanhood eating bark. (On the minus side, the commercial breaks on MSNBC are introduced by an announcer who I'd swear learned his Australian accent by renting a tape of "The Shrimp on the Barbie.")

There's another difference between the daytime cable coverage and NBC's prime time: Without all those human-interest tearjerkers to peddle, the better to whip up interest among nonathletes, there's a much greater emphasis on team rather than individual sports. Monday's coverage was heavy on women's softball, water polo and basketball; the ever-popular soccer is coming up.

Imagine the producers' disappointment when they discover the women don't tear their shirts off after every win.