ABC perfected the Olympic storytelling style more than four decades ago by producing “up-close-and-personal” features about the games’ competitors — heartwarming stories that emphasized athletes’ personal sacrifice, family support and victories over adversity.
On Sunday night, that style may have gone too far.
NBC, the Winter Olympics broadcaster, has drawn widespread criticism on social media since Sunday for airing an interview with American skier Bode Miller in which interviewer Christin Cooper repeatedly pressed Miller about his feelings about his late brother, Chelone, known as “Chilly.” Miller broke down in the interview and eventually walked away as NBC’s camera lingered on the scene.
Many viewers apparently found the interview too invasive — too up close and all too personal.
NBC made the interview a centerpiece of its primetime package during which Miller, the most successful American male skier in Olympic history, tied for a bronze medal in the Super G race. The network had built up Miller as one of its pre-Olympic stars; it had featured him in stories and interviews as a canny, if sometimes erratic, skiing veteran and family man whose 29-year-old brother had died a year ago from a seizure.
So his third-place finish in the Super G, after Miller had finished out of the medals in his earlier races, looked like the fulfillment of the triumph-over-adversity storyline that NBC had set up.
In a post-race interview, it was Miller who first referenced his brother after being asked by Cooper if winning this medal was different than the others.
“This was a little different,” Miller replies. “Y’know, my brother passing away. I wanted to come back here and race the way he sensed it. So this was a little different.”
Cooper, herself a former Olympic skiing medalist, followed up, “Bode, you’re showing so much emotion down here, what’s going through your mind?”
Miller vaguely acknowledged his brother again: “I mean, a lot, obviously. Just a long struggle coming in here, and just a tough year.”
Cooper continued to probe the brother angle. “I know you wanted to be here, with Chilly,” she said, “really experiencing these games and how much does it means for you to come up with a great performance for him and was it for him?”
The question seemed to affect Miller, but he demurred: “I mean, I don’t know if it’s really for him, but I wanted to come here and, I don’t know, I guess make myself proud.”
Cooper tried a third time. “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?”
Miller responded by dropping his head, then falling to his knees, clearly distraught and in tears. Cooper put her hand on Miller’s shoulder and whispered that she was sorry. He then walked away from the interview.
NBC stayed with the scene for more than a minute.
The reaction was swift and unpleasant; Cooper became a trending topic on Twitter not long after the interview aired. “I couldn’t believe Christin Cooper’s outrageous interview of Bode Miller. Kept asking myself ‘when will she stop?’” read one typical (and relatively mild) tweet.
Some argued that NBC was the real culprit by setting up the Miller storyline in the first place and then pushing it in the interview. “We’re not done until you sob, Bode!” read one tweet, couched in the voice of an NBC executive.
Miller himself acknowledged that his brother was on his mind, tweeting later, “Today was one of the most emotional days of my life. I miss my brother.”
He also defended Cooper, both on Twitter and in an interview Monday morning on the “Today” show. “I’ve known Christin a long time,” he said. “She’s a sweetheart of a person. I know she didn’t mean to push. I don’t think she really anticipated what my reaction was going to be, and I think by the time she sort of realized, it was too late. I don’t blame her at all. I feel terrible that she’s taking the heat for that because it really — it was just a heat of the moment kind of circumstance.”
He added, “I don’t think there was any harm intended. It was just a lot of emotion for me. It’s been a lot over the last year. … You sometimes don’t realize how much you contain that stuff until the dam breaks and then it’s just a real outpouring.”
For its part, NBC Sports issued a statement Monday morning reading, “Our intent was to convey the emotion that Bode Miller was feeling after winning his bronze medal. We understand how some viewers thought the line of questioning went too far, but it was our judgment that his answers were a necessary part of the story. We’re gratified that Bode has been publicly supportive of Christin Cooper and the overall interview.”
The Miller interview wasn’t the first during these Olympics to draw criticism to NBC for its apparent invasiveness.
On Friday, NBC host Meredith Vieira asked American skeleton competitor Noelle Pikus-Pace about a miscarriage she suffered. Another American Olympian, Katie Uhlaender, was brought to tears on Friday after she was asked in another interview how her late father would have felt watching her performance. She missed winning a bronze medal in the skeleton by just 0.04 seconds.