30 years ago, ABC Sports was the titan of Olympic Broadcasting. Roone Arledge, the pioneer of Olympic Broadcasting, oversaw and transformed the Olympic Games; from something which took place in faraway places, he brought them into the living rooms for all Americans to watch. If Roone was the pioneer, than Jim McKay was the tour guide. The two of them revolutionized how America watched sports and the Olympic Games. From the highs of the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics to the lows of Munich in 1972, these two men oversaw it all. Roone, behind the scenes and McKay, in-front of the camera.
During their tenure as broadcasting hosts, Arledge and McKay perfected televised Olympic coverage. From the “Upclose and Personal” segments to the competition, they brought the Games into the living rooms so the entire country could feel closer to the athletes and the events. There was a calmness about McKay in the way he hosted Olympic Coverage. He was our guide and he never disappointed. However, the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary would be the last hosted by ABC. Beginning with the Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, NBC Sports has held the monopoly on the Olympic Games. With the exception of the 1992, 1994, and 1998 Winter Olympics (which were broadcast on CBS), NBC has now hosted a record 12 Games in a row, and they hold the rights through the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
The Seoul Games marked, not only the passing of the torch to a new network, but also to a new producer. Dick Ebersol, protegé of Roone Arledge, who had worked under Arledge of years at ABC producing their Olympic broadcasts would begin his tenure as producer. He would lead NBC Olympics for more than 20 years and become the most influential voice of Olympic Broadcasting. In 2011, just a year before the London Games, he retired. Ebersol had a certain way of telling the Olympic story, and that voice has never been more noticeably absent then with the Sochi 2014 broadcast.
Any Olympic broadcast is going to garner huge ratings, that’s a given. NBC did not disappoint in that area. The network achieved what it set out to do, which was make money for its advertisers. Yet, their coverage this year was disjointed and messy. Aside from host Bob Coastas‘ eye infection, which led to him sitting out the first week of the games: NBC’s coverage was all over the map and its hosts; including Costas, Meredith Vieira and Matt Lauer seemed more disconnected from the events then ever before. Though, of all three, Meredith Vieira’s stint hosting was the biggest breath of fresh air for the stale “all men’s club” of Olympic hosting. She was the most engaged and seemed very excited to be stepping into the role. Lauer was tired and stale and looked as though he wanted to be somewhere else. While Costas, usually jovial, thoughtful, and endearing, was just reading the teleprompter (I’m sure it had much to do with his poor health). Yet, it was not just the host’s fault. Executive Producer of NBC Olympics, Jim Bell, has to be held accountable. Since he is at the helm of the NBC Olympic juggernaut, he is the one who makes the calls and ultimately makes all the decisions about a broadcast.
The problems with their Sochi coverage started almost immediately. While NBC wants to capitalize on the primetime audiences, it makes their packaging of the events more difficult. The games, much like their summer counterparts, are now larger than they have ever been before. While dividing up the events throughout the various platforms owned by NBC is a great idea, it needs to be done better. If MSNBC is going to the home of ice hockey, then they should air the ice hockey games live. The same thing goes for CNBC and curling. It should also be consistent. USA Network was also used, but to minimal advantage. Make USA Network home to the extreme sports (snowboarding, ski cross, slope style), it fits their demographic, and give Bravo figure skating. That leaves NBC Sports Network to air alpine, cross-country, speed skating, ski jumping and biathlon; all of which can be aired live or with minimal delay. Save the mothership, NBC, for primetime and “special” premier events (gold medal hockey, figure skating finals, Opening and Closing Ceremony).
NBC holds onto the Opening and Closing Ceremony to air in primetime. But, unlike 20 years ago, it is now easier to air events live, as they happen. They should air the event live, nothing says they cannot repeat them again in primetime. After all, they will get a larger audience. Research has shown that the audience doesn’t care if something is taped and replayed, they will watch it again and again. Especially the ceremonies and gold medal games. Besides, who is really home to watch in the mid-afternoon? Other broadcasters from around the world air the vast majority of events live, and re-air them during primetime.
But, the biggest problem with NBC’s coverage of the Olympic Games this year was its overall lack of passion and excitement. Even the athletes seemed to lack the passion that usually accompanies an Olympic Games. Maybe it was the political situation in Russia? Maybe it was the weather (or lack there of). Something was off this year and a viewer could sense it watching on television. Previously, the network had a formula for how each broadcast night would go; show an event, show a human interest story about an athlete, go back to Bob Coastas who would then introduce a cultural story, then back to an event. There was very little on the culture of Russia (except for Mary Carrillo’s two-minute features) and even less about Sochi. When events were aired, only five or six competitors were shown, then commercial break. For the Closing Ceremony, there seemed to be more commercials than there was actual coverage of the event.
NBC holds the rights to broadcast the Games through 2020, with Rio being the only host city close to Eastern Standard Time. The other two hosts; Tokyo and PyeongChang are 12 hours ahead of the U.S. East Coast. If NBC wants to win back the good will of their viewer, then it is of utmost importance they change the way they broadcast the games. They may have won ratings gold, but they sure lived up to the #NBCFail which trended for two weeks.