Christin Cooper’s post-race interview with American alpine skier Bode Miller could have used more polish, but it was not the affront to NBC’s viewership that many have condemned it to be.
In the aftermath of Cooper’s bottom-of-the-hill chat with Miller, one that ended with the Super G bronze medalist hunched over a fence and obviously distraught, NBC’s alpine skiing analyst was pilloried from numerous precincts for her insensitivity. For pushing Miller, whose younger brother, Chelone, was himself an aspiring Olympian before dying of an apparent seizure last April, too far. You may draw your own conclusion and watch the video here.
To provide context, Cooper, 54, is no mere talking head who subscribes to the tabloid journalism credo, “If it bleeds, it leads.” She is herself a U.S. Olympic alpine skiing medalist, having won a silver in the Giant Slalom at the 1984 Sarajevo Games. Credit Cooper for having known Miller, who is competing in his fourth Winter Olympics, for quite some time.
Also, up until Sunday’s bronze medal moment, it had been a dispiriting week for Miller. The five-time Olympic medalist skied the fastest time in training in the men’s Downhill only to finish out of the medals, in eighth place, the following day. Later in the week, as the defending gold medalist in the Super Combined, he finished sixth.
Even on his best days, Miller has a history of being taciturn with the media, so who knew what to expect when, after tying for a bronze medal by a mere .02 seconds in the Super G, Cooper approached him at the bottom of the hill? Cooper’s first comment was innocent enough, after Miller himself had broached the topic of his brother passing away within the past year.
“Bode, you’re showing so much emotion down here,” said Cooper. “What’s going through your mind?”
The problem with this query by Cooper is that Miller had essentially just answered it. “This was a little different I think, um, with my brother passing away,” Miller had said. “I really wanted to come back here and race, you know, the way he sends it. So, uh, this was a little different.”
Hence, that question by Cooper accomplished nothing other than to prod Miller to essentially repeat himself. Which, in not so many words, Miller did. Then Cooper said, “I know you wanted to be here with Chilly, really, experiencing these Games, and how much does it mean to you to come up with a great performance for him? And was it for him?”
This question was unnecessary. Before I tackle why --and full disclosure, I worked for NBC at the Olympics in 2004, 2006 and 2008 -- let’s proceed directly to Cooper’s last question, her best question. The question that precipitated Miller’s emotional breakdown.
“When you’re looking up in the sky at the start, we see you there,” said Cooper, “and it just looks like you’re talking to somebody. What’s going on there?"
Excellent question. A “soup question,” as Sean Connery described such a query in Finding Forrester, because it is a question that earnestly seeks information. Whereas Cooper’s previous question had not.
In hindsight, and of course it becomes more facile given time to ruminate over it, Cooper should have blended her final two questions into one. It should have been something like, “I know how you wanted to be here with Chilly, really, experiencing these Games. When you’re looking up in the sky at the start, we see you there and it just looks like you’re talking to somebody. What’s going on there?”
Such a question would have rewarded Cooper’s, or some NBC producer’s, observation that Miller was indeed doing just that. Besides, asking an Olympic-level athlete if they are competing for a fallen loved one is always pandering. These athletes sacrifice too many years and dedicate too much time to their chosen pursuit for them to be doing it primarily for anyone besides themselves. Was Miller’s brother on his mind before the race? Of course. Was he doing it “for him?” That’s almost an insult.
What may have offended many viewers was just how tight the camera shot on Miller was during the interview. Or how long the camera lingered on Miller after the encounter with Cooper abruptly ended, up until Miller was comforted by his telegenic wife, Morgan, a woman who has received more camera time from NBC during the first week in Sochi than probably 80% of the U.S. contingent.
Was this intrusive? No. It was all occurring out in front of thousands of live spectators at the bottom of the run. Moreover, it was, as former NBC Olympics overlord Dick Ebersol would say, “great television.” Melodrama is the fuel of Olympic coverage (Hello, Tonya & Nancy) and in this vignette we have a spectrum of emotion, from grief to affection. I guarantee you that current NBC Olympics executive producer Jim Bell was thrilled with this moment and I’d be willing to wager that no video has been viewed on NBCOlympics.com as much as this.
In my time with NBC at the Olympics, one of the first things that transpired after everyone arrived in the host city was a production seminar. All of the on-air talent, producers and writers were assembled as Ebersol oversaw a meeting detailing the manner in which he expected the Peacock to cover the Games. The seminar lasted a few hours. It was thorough and numerous clips were shown in order to give those convened--some of whom would be covering their first Olympics--an idea of what the standards for coverage were. Notice, for example, that you will never hear an NBC on-air talent use the term “Ceremony” (as in “Opening Ceremony”) in the plural or refer to Americans in competition using “we” or “us.”
Cooper’s interview with Miller will likely be shown at the next Olympic production seminar in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Cooper will be praised for pursuing a relevant story line--an Olympic medalist’s bittersweet triumph--as she should be. Someone should also add that her technique needed refining. After Miller mentioned his little brother, Cooper should have gone directly to the top of the mountain and asked him about that. It was a terrific observation--there was no need for any maudlin moments to interfere with it.