Let’s face it, complaining about Olympic TV coverage every two to four years has become an Olympic sport. And, thanks to NBC, there’s no lack of material, whether it’s the tsunami of commercials (which include leaving mid-race to sling insurance and beer), or its trying-too-hard commentators, or its intrusive background stories about “adversity” or “the journey” or whatever, or coverage that is more ADHD than HD, flitting from one event to another as if we can’t possibly focus more than five minutes on an event.
The single biggest flaw with NBC’s Olympic coverage over the years is that the network simply doesn’t cover the Games like a sporting event. It covers them like a reality show, or the way Oprah would do it if she were in charge.
If NBC covered the Super Bowl the way it covers the Olympics, the play-by-play guy might sound something like this: “Tom Brady drops back to pass and looks downfield for an open receiver … speaking of finding someone, Tom found a wife and has children and house and a dog and everything! And here to tell you about it is Andrea Kremer, who had a chance to sit down with Tom’s dog this week. Andrea ….”
NBC doesn’t even argue the point. At the last Olympics, one NBC executive explained the network’s philosophy this way: “The people who watch the Olympics are not particularly sports fans. More women watch the games than men, and for the women, they’re less interested in the result and more interested in the journey. It’s sort of like the ultimate reality show and miniseries wrapped into one.”
Women should be insulted, if not as bored and frustrated as everyone else.
What it really means is that NBC execs don’t believe the Olympic sports are compelling enough to hold our interest, and they have a point; there are simply too many sports that have been added to the program as the Olympics — and NBC — make a desperate attempt to appeal to every niche audience but not the sports audience at large — the people who watch football, for instance.
Kayaking, canoeing, badminton and volleyball are sports we’re interested in at the occasional family picnic, but beyond a few moments of curiosity, not many are going to watch them. Anyway, let the Olympics add Frisbee and cornhole, too — who cares? — but that doesn’t mean NBC has to cover them all, racing from one event to the next with no continuity to its coverage.
The listings for each night’s Olympic programming don’t help — they inform you only that that night’s coverage will include a smorgasbord of sports. Those who want to see, say, track and field or swimming must wade through a bunch of other stuff to get a (brief) payoff.
NBC’s cause has not been helped by circumstance. There’s the time difference in Tokyo, which means you’ve got to get up in the wee hours to watch live or wait to watch the replays in the evening if you somehow managed to avoid the results on the internet that come without spoiler alerts (as if to stick it to NBC, ESPN sends out the results to its audience).
Then there are all those empty stands, which kills the atmosphere, even for a TV audience, and finally there’s the failure of many star attractions that NBC was banking on — the U.S. soccer team’s losses, Simone Biles’ withdrawal, the underperformance by so many U.S. track and field stars, including yet another DQ by the U.S. men’s 4 x 100 team.
The media likes to push the everyone’s-a-winner narrative, but the Denver Post’s Mark Kiszla captured it more accurately in his story about Emma Colburn’s mystifying 14th-place finish in the steeplechase.
“It’s now supposed to be all about the journey. Right?” he wrote, to which Coburn told him, “No, we’re professional athletes. Obviously, everybody has different experiences. But for me, it’s about results.”
Anyway, because the sports are not compelling, NBC’s broadcasters are trying extra hard to sell it. They’re selling it like a used car salesman with a clunker. They gush. They pepper us with extraneous information, often in the middle of a competition.
Instead of providing commentary on an ongoing track race, they’re gabbing on about something else. How many times are they going to tell us that Elle Purrier is a farm girl from Vermont, or that Gabby Thomas went to Harvard, or that Allyson Felix is a mom, or that Courtney Frerichs used to be a gymnast (memo to NBC, most athletes did other sports as children)?
If a runner falls during a race, NBC shows the audience replays of the fall over and over and ignores the ongoing race. In the middle of the balance beam competition, NBC broke away for several minutes to tell us the family story of all-around champion Suni Lee.
The NBC broadcasters want to convince you they’ve got an amazing product. They call Simone Biles the GOAT, which is very much debatable, but NBC pushes it as if it’s a foregone conclusion (when one of the talking heads mentioned that some consider Biles to be the GOAT, the other talking head chimed in, “She is,” as if to assure us).
They’re constantly reminding us that Allyson Felix can tie Carl Lewis for most medals won in an Olympics (10, and she did), but thankfully someone in the booth mentioned that five of her medals are relays and only one of her individual medals is gold (Lewis’s 10-medal collection consists of nine golds, eight of them for individual events).
They even oversell when they don’t actually need to sell it because it’s selling itself. The men’s and women’s 400 hurdle races lived up to their billing and might be the best two races in Olympic history, but after the men’s race, Sanya Richards-Ross raved, “These two men went to bed last night and knew exactly what the world expected and they did not disappoint!!!!! They are champions but we are winners too!!!! We just saw what we might never see again!!!!!!!!”
Look, NBC has been broadcasting the Olympics for forever and still can’t get it right. Can we let someone else have a turn? No. NBC and the International Olympic Committee signed a $7.75 billion deal that runs through, egads, 2032, when we’ll all be, let’s see, 11 years older. Let’s hope something changes between now and then.