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.)
Fort Worth, Texas: Love your work, guys. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on NBC's coverage of the games. Better or worse than the Triplecast?
Josh Levin: My grandfather was one of the eight people in America who ordered the Triplecast. We've come a long way since then ... the Septuplecast now comes standard on all cable systems. As far as the sap quotient goes, though, it seems pretty much the same.
Baton Rouge, La.: For the 2012 London Games, how about the Sapometer TripleCast?
Josh Levin: That's a great idea! Also, as we wrote in the award-winning Sap-o-Meter introductory text: "We've also yet to develop technology that automatically detects sappy violin music. We hope to roll out that feature in time for the 2012 Games."
Olympic type question: What were your emotions when you invented the Sap Meter?
Josh Levin: I was pretty stone-faced, but my mom started crying and waving a small American flag.
Washington, DC: I don't recall any mother getting as much tv coverage as Michael Phelps's mom. Am I not remembering someone?
I think if you listed the amount of air time every athlete in the games has received thus far, Mama Phelps's air time would be top 10.
Derek Thompson: I absolutely agree. I think Debbie Phelps challenged Bob Costas for screen time during the first week. And when Chris Collinsworth sat next to her to hold her hand? It was like a perfect storm for sap.
New York, NY: Would it be politically incorrect to apply the Sap-o-Meter to the Special Olympics?
Josh Levin: I think it probably would be. I'm going to leave it at that.
New York, NY: What Olympic sport or athlete isn't getting enough sap from NBC? Whose hard-knock story is going untold unfairly?
Josh Levin: Definitely Kobe Bryant.
Washington, D.C.: Where would you rank the little vignette NBC did with Sanya Richards and her husband, the Giants corner back, lining up to race each other? Where they had her finishing the lap in fast-forward before he gets off the blocks?
Chris Wilson: I'd say that was less sappy than it was plain old lame. And I quote Aaron Ross from that segment: "Enough of all the lovey-dovey stuff. I thought we were out here to race."
Here's hoping those two get their own show—on NBC, of course.
New York, NY: Has NBC produced any sap-inspired neologisms? I recall broadcasters in some other sports have occasionally invoked "stick-to-it-ive-ness" (sp).
Derek Thompson: That's a great question! I haven't caught a particularly memorable new phrase. I will say that I was overjoyed to hear the word "Olympic-sized" finally uttered two nights ago. That was a small moral victory for our fledgling team of sap words. My favorite moments, rhetorically, are when the commentators are at a loss for words because it usually means something really awesome just happened and I don't want NBC negate the "magic" of the moment by using the word "magic" incessantly.
Anonymous: If not the Special Olympics, how about the political conventions?
Derek Thompson: Like a Pander-o-Meter? Perhaps the Hope-o-Meter? Or just Obameter for number of fawning mentions? Hey, we're not promising anything. But yeah, it could be fun.
Arlington, Va.: Whenever a broadcaster mentioned that Dara Torres was 41, I took to responding, "Also, Jerome Bettis is from Detroit."
Josh Levin: Every time any interviewer would ask Dara Torres what message she wanted to give America, she would say: "You don't have to put an age limit on your dreams." Thanks for the advice, Dara. Also, a Zen question: If my dream is to put an age-limit on Dara Torres' dreams, who wins?
Chicago: If the US Women Soccer goalkeeper says anything except "I told you so (insert expletive that shouldn't be used in a family newspaper)" for beating Brazil after being benched last time the teams faced each other, she would get a sap point.
Derek Thompson: I think expletives and sap might be on opposite ends of a spectrum. Maybe she deserves an honorable mention for "most expletive-ridden comeback"
Prince Frederick, Md.: I was looking forward to synchronized swimming at the Olympics—it's the only time it's shown on TV. It was so frustrating to try and enjoy the performances to music when the two commentators talked constantly through the routines. The Washington Post has an article Wednesday about a new and innovative group routine the U.S. would be performing—the coach expects a standing ovation etc. from the crowd. I only can hope that we at home are allowed to see and hear it. Please, commentators, shut up!
washingtonpost.com: In the Pool, a Thing of Beauty(Post, Aug. 20)
Chris Wilson: I'm with you. Of all the ways that NBC could drain some of the sap out of its coverage, the simplest is just to talk less.
West Texas, Texas: This is sort of a tree-fall-in-the-forest question: If Michael Phelps didn't have a heartwarming backstory, would he really exist? Or would NBC show us (even) more beach volleyball? Thanks in advance.
Derek Thompson: Dear Existential in Texas,
Great question. I'd say Michael Phelps has got to be one of the most physically gifted, hard-working, clutch and LUCKY (did Milorad Cavic just stop kicking?) athletes in recent Olympic history. So NBC was going to slobber all over that story no matter what.
Actually I think his back story is interesting, but it's still not heartwarming on a Misty May/Nastia Liukin level. Of course he does have Debbie Phelps, who grabbed so much screen time I wouldn't be surprised to see the show "Debbie!" debut on NBC this fall...
washingtonpost.com: NBC Pins Its Hopes on Phelps and His Olympics Cohorts, and They Deliver—Big Time
New York, NY: Which event has been least sap-inducing? I suspect the Sap-o-Meter needle didn't move at all during the women's trampoline final.
Josh Levin: On account of societal attitudes toward women, any event with female athletes is bound to generate more sap than the parallel male event. So, I'd guess that men's trampoline was less sappy, unless one of the competitors had an artificial leg or a parent with a fatal disease. It's hard to account for those factors.
For Mama: When our family group is watching the Oly's, whenever the Mom is shown on the screen we all yell out in unison "There's Mama!" in our best down home accents.
Derek Thompson: Great to see you're playing along! Mom is indeed a great barometer of sap. This Slate feature could probably run on just mothers—the Mom-o-Meter would provide just as accurate a portrayal of the varying levels of sentimentality.
Helena Mont.: John Tesh throws the sap meter through the roof with his sappy fluff statement, "Little girls dancing for Gold." Trautwig just bumbles, Tesh is the king of sap.
Derek Thompson: Remember when Trautwig pulled out this gem? "And now begins Shawn Johnson's dream sequence. She looks like a kid on the best of Christmas mornings." You can't make that stuff up. That's just raw talent.
Anonymous: Oh I get it you guys are being snarky. That's really unfair because many of these commentators come from humble beginnings and they have overcome many obstacles to be where they are today.
Chris Wilson: We can sympathize. Developing the Sap-o-Meter has been a dream of ours for years—and the journey wasn't easy. But through dedication, determination, and a truly Olympic-sized effort, we were able to overcome the challenges. I'd like to thank my mom.
North McLean, Va.: Back in the Jim McKay era, (Golden Age of Olympic Sap) I used to believe that having an Inspiring Personal Story was a prerequisite for becoming an Olympian. They would exaggerate hardships without mercy. Although I think things are more nuanced now, I wonder which hardship story you think has been most over-hyped?
Derek Thompson: Oh Jim McKay was a legend, I agree. Some of those profiles are on YouTube and they're enough to melt even the hardest of hearts. I agree that they don't say absolutely unforgivable stuff like "now watch Nastia float through the air like an angel on the wings of a dream." They've toned that down. But they still use the words dream and magic as though there is NO OTHER WAY to talk about the Olympics, which still boggles my mind.
In terms of what story has been most over-hyped, I think you would have hide in a bunker to get away from the Nastia Liukin/father story line. NBC ate that up.
Takoma Park, Md.: Until reading this, I have been an Olympic-sized un-American Olympics avoider. I will now be tuning in...
But, has NBC convered the Rohullah Nikpai storyline? It seems to warrant bona fide sappiness.
Derek Thompson: That Afghanistan story is remarkable. But I think NBC wants to keep politics as far away from the Olympics as possible. Once you get into stories that necessarily mention U.S. military interventions, viewers are taken out of the Sappy-sphere and thrust back into the real world of geopolitics.
Derek Thompson: That's all for today. I want to thank my colleagues Chris and Josh for their Olympic-sized dedication to this chat. And thank you all for your heartwarming questions. We know you sacrificed everything to be here with us.