Sunday, February 28, 2010

My Olympic Experience in my Beautiful Country Canada

Lots of things have been written, said, shown on what were the best moments of Canada’s Olympics, but I’m rather speechless. It’s not so much what the best moments were for me, or that we owned the Gold podium, but more how I experienced it.

I don’t remember when I first started watching the Olympics. I remember Torvill and Dean in 1984; I remember Elizabeth Manley and Brian Orser; I remember the nordic warm welcome of Lillehammer. And always it was through the lens of the television cameras beamed onto cathode ray televisions in my TV room. The Beijing Olympic Games were the first time I saw it on HD and saw the possibility of seeing pictures beamed along telephone lines into my computer and onto its screen and through its speakers. But those streaming videos were primitive.

In years past, I shared the Games with the people I was watching the television with, usually family members, a cat or two, and a dog. And especially during the figure skating events, I shared the excitement over the phone with an uber fan, a friend. But often people weren’t as enthused as me, so I’d be cheering at the TV by myself.

Not anymore.

Two things happened to make this Olympics the first truly shared experience with fans from sea to sea to sea in Canada and with fans in other countries too. Social media has exploded in the last year or two, connecting people through their preferred method of talking to each other: Facebook or Twitter. As with other big events, usually catastrophes or political events, Twitter became a natural venue to observe, groan, cheer, scream, report, cry, and celebrate the Olympics with so many others, not just our followers and those we follow, but also with those who used the same hashtags.

The second thing was that CTV decided not to be its usual self and uncharacteristically showcased a Canadian show, although technically the Olympics are international. For a long time, I was quite concerned about how they would cover the Games, given how they’ve shafted the Junos and hidden the Grey Cup from so many Canadians by moving it to a cable channel. Everyone had gotten used to CBC’s wall-to-wall events coverage, focusing not just on Canadians but also great and inspiring athletes from other countries. Even Americans who lived in the northern states had gotten used to CBC’s outstanding coverage. In the months leading up to the opening ceremonies, CTV had talked about moving truckloads of audiovisual digital equipment, of having the most technologically advanced equipment ever. Still.

And then I turned on the TV two Fridays ago at lunch hour; it was tuned to CTV in anticipation of the opening ceremonies and before I could flip to CBC news, I suddenly realised they were covering the torch relay. Well, it’ll only be for one hour I figured because it was the noon news timeslot after which would come the American soaps and Oprah and no way CTV going to be showing something Canadian when something popular and American on. Was I wrong. CTV decided to prove they’re as Canadian as the rest of us and covered the torch relay the whole, friggin’ way. From the time they started broadcasting that until sometime tonight after the closing ceremonies, CTV has covered the Olympics morning, noon, and night. Like CBC, they had an Olympic Morning. Like CBC, they had an Olympic Daytime. And like CBC – until they poached him – they had Brian Williams anchoring Primetime.

But unlike CBC, they began with rather ADD-like coverage of events. I was seriously annoyed, and that’s when Twitter met Television. CTV I quickly discovered was on Twitter too, and I aimed my tweets that way. Someone asked if CTV was paying any attention to mine and other people’s complaints. @CTVOlympics said yes. And they were because by that evening, under the expert guidance of Brian Williams, coverage had settled down or maybe more appropriately up to CBC’s level. In fact, I noticed that when I’d complain about something, it was soon rectified or partially. I’m not sure if my tweets really got results that fast or it was just coincidence, but I liked.

Because of CTV’s twitter feed, I decided to try those online feeds again. I had tried earlier but got nowhere. I wasn’t expecting much more than what CBC provided during Beijing games, small video boxes with ambient sound. After being thoroughly frustrated with thinking I had the video feed but then not seeing anything, I tweeted CTV and they replied right away! It took a couple more tries but by February 16th, I had Silverlight working on my Vista machine and Moonlight on my Ubuntu machine. And boy was the frustration worth it. I don’t know if there is better technology out there, and I figured they used Microsoft’s Silverlight because of the corporate connection between Bell (CTV’s parent company) and MS, but it made the second big difference between these Olympics and previous ones.

For the first time, I could watch the Olympics wherever my laptop could go (and not just in my house as it was available in movie theatres too if I so wished to trot there), which pretty much meant everywhere. While eating breakfast, I could tune in to Olympic Morning. While resting on the couch, I could watch a not-to-be-missed event. While working on my writing, I could have a television window open. These were not the small direct feeds of the Beijing Games either, these were television signals pumped to my computer as well as the direct world feeds, whichever I preferred, in full and live HD with proper sound with PVR controls with lots and lots of features.

For the first time, I could watch the Olympics on television in HD and on my computer in HD and alongside social media so that I could talk about the events while watching them at the same time. And for the first time, no matter the time or event, watching the Olympics was not a solitary event. I shared it with my Canadian sisters and brothers, with Olympic volunteers and people right there.

As I enjoyed this new way of seeing the Olympics, I imagined the possibilities. For the first time, I saw the reality of TV on the computer. Instead of being chained to my television to watch my favourite show, I could watch on my laptop and gossip about it on Twitter (if I felt inclined). If I was late with supper, I wouldn’t have to miss my favourite show, I could simply tune it in on my laptop. And then I thought about the Grey Cup. Imagine sharing that uber-Canadian event with the whole country. I have missed seeing it since the CFL gave broadcast rights to CTV who promptly shafted it to TSN. But with this technology, the whole of Canada can see our game again. Plus Canada can twitter and facebook about it online at the same time. It would become bigger than it already is. It could bring this Canadian party spirit back. And what about the Canada Day festivities. That’s the day to really party. With our time zones, we could use the same technology to watch and share party after party roll from east to west as we come home from our own parties or celebrate in our own homes.

I also see this tech as an end-run round the cable companies. Stream television direct to the masses, I say.

So, will we see CTV stream its shows, its special events over the Internet from here on in? Perhaps not right away as I read that they were shocked by the tens of millions of hits on their video feeds. They provided the technology but didn’t think people would take to it like beavers to trees. Now they know better. I look forward to the day when this technology is an everyday thing.

But for now it’s au revoir Canada. The Olympics are over. This the saddest day. I will always remember these Olympics, how much a part of Canada I felt, how I so enjoyed Canadians unabashedly celebrating our country without the usual BS about how we have no identity or we can only know ourselves in opposition to the Americans or we can’t aspire to be the best because that’s not self-effacing. It is. We saw that in the unadulterated joy of our athletes who won and Canadians who celebrated alongside from coast to coast to coast. I love Canada!

But wait, it’s not over. The Paralympics are on in only 13 days, and I look forward to proper coverage for the first time ever. And I look forward to seeing Brian McKeever race. The Olympic Spirit will live on.

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