Slate's Josh Levin, Derek Thompson, and Chris Wilson were online at Washingtonpost.com to chat about their Sap-o-Meter project to gauge the mawkish tone of NBC's Olympics coverage. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.
Josh Levin: Hey, everyone, we're ready to answer your questions about Slate's Olympics Sap-o-Meter.
St. Mary's City, Md.: NBC is not alone in this phenomenon—the Baltimore Sun notes that the foreign press describes suburban Towson as a "blue-collar mill town" and "the mean streets of Baltimore" to make Michael Phelps' origins sound more colorful. I see some unpleasant implications of the network's sappy approach—it appears to suggest that athletes who have suffered tragedy or who have humble origins are somehow more worthy of success and acclaim. Almost like athletics is a morality play. Am I reading too much into the sappiness?
Chris Wilson: Absolutely not. I think NBC—and, as you note, many other news organizations—do a disservice to the athletes when they retrofit their personal lives into this one-size-fits-all narrative about struggle, adversity, and resilience. It's a hackneyed storyline that paves over their uniqueness and diversity of backgrounds.
Washington: Al Trautwig or John Tesh?
Josh Levin: I'm a Trautwig man myself. Sure, Tesh had his moments but so far Trautwig is lapping the field with three of our Sappiest Lines of the Day. My favorite: "And now begins Shawn Johnson's dream sequence. She looks like a kid on the best of Christmas mornings."
Washington: I have to say that the "Jamaican yams and gams" comment by Costas solicited a groan on my sap-o-meter.
Josh Levin: Costas hasn't been terrible so far this Olympiad, at least compared to his colleagues ... that was by far his worst moment of the Summer Games. But it was so bad that it almost completely erases his brief run of non-badness.
Washington: I just wanted to let you know that, as my colleagues and I gather each day to eat lunch and watch the Olympics, we now treat the commentary as some kind of drinking game. Sans drinks, sadly, but I'm sure the stuffy office-mates eating at their desks wonder why they keep hearing group shouts of "journey!" and "mom!" from the conference room.
Chris Wilson: If you were actually taking a shot every time they said "mom," I would seriously worry about your BAC by the end of the night. "Mom" is currently leading the pack with 93 prime-time mentions, followed close behind by "dream" with 80 Sap Points. Might want to stick to Diet Coke.
Claverack, N.Y.: So... got yourself Sap-O-Meter, huh? Nice. Course, round these parts, us locals just eyeball our sap. I'll turn to Martha and go, "I'm thinkin' that commentary was pretty sappy, Martha", and she'll look at me and go, "No Jake; I think if you look a little closer, you'll see it was only fairly sappy." And I'll say, "Welp. I reckon maybe you're right." And then we watch the volleyball. But a Sap-O-Meter's good too.
Josh Levin: We considered going with the "I'm thinkin' that commentary was pretty sappy, Martha" methodology, but then we decided that counting the words would probably be better. But maybe we chose wrong.
Rockville, Md.: There is one person who keeps writing in to each Olympic chat to complain about the Post announcing Olympic results prior to NBC showing the event in prime time. However, everyone else in the US is complaining about NBC not showing the event live and waiting until prime time to show a event when we all already know the results. To that one person: the days of the news anchors playing cheesy music and saying "turn away from the television now if you don't want to see the results" are OVER. Please go back to 1980 and leave the rest of us alone.
Derek Thompson: NBC—and the other media sources reporting from Beijing—are in a weird bind here, I agree. On the one hand, anybody with an Internet connection expects to see the results immediately. On the other hand, a lot of people wait until prime time to watch the competition to feel the drama. Last night was a perfect example. Usain Bolt ran the fastest 200m in history yesterday morning and you would have to hibernate in a cave to not know it. NBC showed the race in prime time hours later.
I know that when my editor Josh emails updates about the Olympics to the Slate office, he often prefaces it by saying something like: "OLYMPICS SPOILER ALERT." I think websites should do the same by placing the Olympics news under "the fold" and giving spoiler alerts. That way, we all win.
Hawthorne, N.J.: How did you decide on the words that would go toward the Sap total? How are they tallied each night?
Derek Thompson: To answer your second question first, we tally up the scores by going through the transcript of each night's NBC prime time coverage just as it's wrapping up, around 1am. We just count the number of mentions for each word, add it up, and voila: Sap-o-Meter scores.
As for how we chose the 33 words: Josh, Chris and I went through old transcripts of NBC's coverage of both the Athens 2004 games and the Torino 2006 games and looked for the words most commonly used in an egregiously sentimental fashion. We wanted to be careful not to include words that were used in both sappy and understandable contexts, like "moment." Sometimes NBC commentators will say: "That was an unforgettable moment in history!" But other times they're just saying "We'll be back in a moment." So that's why some of your favorite sap words might not appear on our list—they have ambiguous overall sappiness. On the other hand, words like "dream" and "magic" emerged as obvious choices because they're really only used in a saccharine manner.
New York, NY: Besides the Olympics, what sport do you think gets the sappiest coverage?
Josh Levin: Maybe the Little League World Series, which is actually counter-programming for the Olympics this week. It's the sappiest week of the year! There are tons of dreams and emotions and challenges and tears for those little guys.
Beverly, Mass.: Instead of a number, did you consider grading the sap in the fashion of Vermont's maple syrup manufacturers? I.e., Grade A dark amber, and so on?
Chris Wilson: We tossed around a few ideas for the grading system, but ultimately chose one that didn't place any theoretical upper limit on the sappiness of the coverage. And it's a good thing we didn't! The 42 Sap Points on August 12 seemed like a lot—up until the tag team of Michael and Debbie Phelps contributed to a record 64 points five days later.
Falls Church, Va.: Gold medal USA women's soccer!! USA! USA!
Josh Levin: The golden girls from the United States have sacrificed, they've overcome the odds, they've battled adversity, and now they have what they've always dreamed of: an Olympic-sized win over Brazil. (That would be worth seven Sap Points. It would also make my head explode.)