Finally. Now that the torch is lit, it’s time to actually play some sports and hand out some medals. While the first events of the Olympics actually began on Wednesday, they “officially” kicked off in full today and, with it, NBC’s primetime packaging of the Olympics. For the past few Summer Olympics, NBC has taken to a similar pattern for its primetime coverage: Week One will be filled with swimming, diving, gymnastics, and beach volleyball while Week Two will be filled with more gymnastics, beach volleyball, and track and field. Sure, there will be other sports thrown in from time to time just give viewers an overall flavor of the games, but if you’re interested in other sports, from the mainstream (soccer, basketball) to the obscure (badminton, team handball), you’re better off heading to one of NBCUniversal’s ancillary networks sharing coverage. It’s a formula that’s worked for the network: slot the sports that get the highest ratings and feature high-profile American athletes into primetime and let viewers seek out other stuff on their own.
One of the biggest stories heading into the Olympics this year was that, for the first time ever, all of the events would be streamed live online and for free (assuming you have a working computer, a fast enough internet connection, and your cable provider was carrying them). It was a smart and merciful move for a network that’s taken a lot of guff about tape delay and pretending like events didn’t exist until NBC said they exist (see: the network’s previous Olympics and Wimbledon coverage). Unlike 2008, when morning events in Bejing could be covered live in primetime, and 2010, when most primetime events were covered at least sorta live from Vancouver, London’s time zone difference (six hours ahead for me in Chicago) means all of NBC’s primetime will be tape-delayed repackaging.
This is where the livestream is both a blessing and a curse. Watching some of the live feeds this morning, there was a bit of tedium due to the breaks in play and the time between qualifying heats. Repackaged for TV, the network can cut out a lot of dead air and allow for all of those human interest stories with soft-focused lenses and tales of overcoming adversity that make the Olympics so special (you know, like this one and this one). But it was still great to see so many events live and in full. Plus, how does the network bring excitement and drama to an event that was aired live over the Internet six, seven, even eight hours before and the outcome is known by a large portion of the viewership? This is the digital age and sports spoiler are no longer taboo, sprayed across Twitter, ESPN, and other major news outlets.
In his opening of tonight's primetime telecast, Bob Costas addressed the tape-delay issue but promised “no spoilers” and said events will still unfold as they did live (with all the boring, non-USA stuff trimmed out). After checking in with the commentators at both the gymnastics and swimming venues, viewers were taken to a montage and then the first of many, many commercial breaks. While only 10 minutes from open to the first moment of someone actually competing, the early commercial break was a sign of what was to come throughout the night in terms of flow (more on that in Stray Observations).
With the most hype being for the swimming showdown between Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte in the men's 400m IM, it made sense NBC would keep that one in their back pocket for later in the broadcast and go straight to a chilly beach volleyball arena for a match featuring touted USA duo Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings, two-time defending gold medal champs and still a worthy opener for primetime coverage. The commentators were solid in their call of the match, informative, loose, and knowledgeable as the USA team captured the first set. But rather than go back to the match after a break, NBC instead decided to go back to Costas in the studio for highlights of Team USA’s opening women’s volleyball match from earlier in the day and a John McEnroe profile of Ryan Lochte.
Overall, there was a 12-minute gap during coverage of the beach volleyball match not only disrupting viewers but, even with the tape delay, failing to portray the events as actual sporting events and more like segments dispersed amongst highlights and athlete profiles. While those latter two bits are an integral part of Olympics coverage, the compartmentalized nature of actual athletics coverage was asinine. The network later dropped in a random profile of USA men's gymnast John Orozco in the middle of ther gymnastics coverage, too. The break between sets is very short, not even close to the length of an NFL halftime, which is what NBC treated it as. And when coverage did return to the beach volleyball match, the network had skipped most of the second set, the network’s assumption being that viewers didn't mind missing a chunk of actual competition and just wanted to get to the part where America won. So much for creating excitement and tension. I dare them to skip the first 10 minutes of the second quarter next time they air the Super Bowl and see how that goes over.
More promising was that the schizophrenic nature eased up as the broadcast progressed and more continuous time was spent with the sports on the scene. Of course, gymnastics and swimming lend themselves to this scattershot coverage more because of the nature of the individual events and heats (as did the fact that only those two sports were covered for the block's final three hours). NBC went right to work with men’s gymnastic coverage, throwing viewers right into the middle of the qualifying rounds. Commentators Tim Daggett, Elfi Schlegel, and JK Simmons doppelganger Al Trautwig have received harsh criticism in the past and while they were toned down—probably because no medals were immediately at stake—it was the same issue as always with these three: repetition of the same information, a lot of cliches (also repeated), and an insistence to continue talking even when the situation doesn’t need it; there was no just letting the routine play out and analyze it after.
As for creating drama, the commentators actually undermined themselves by commentating on events that had already occurred and were shown (and this on a tape delay already, creating a very meta feel) and giving away mistakes or excellent moves moments before viewers saw them. No spoilers, indeed. They also failed to explain exactly how the individual scoring helped countries advance to team finals. But I’m sure that’s not important because hey look! Ryan Seacrest!
Interspersed throughout the gymnastics coverage was a handful of swimming finals. Commentators Dan Hicks and Rowdy Gaines were decent, Rowdy not quite living up to his name as he sometimes can, his excited squelch grating at times. But with far fewer races to show this early on, swimming was second to gymnastics for the night, tonight’s aquatic dose a small taste of what’s to come once the games get going full steam.
NBC is clearly fine with the “if it ain’t broke…” approach even if there are areas for improvement. Still, plenty of viewers, particularly the casual ones, won't mind the scattershot nature of the coverage and cutting out large chunks of some events. Because gymnastics and swimming will dominate the next seven or eight days, expect to see packages similar to tonight’s throughout the upcoming week and little about other sports that occur and the ratings will surely max out regardless of how few references Costas makes to badminton during primetime. The network did its best to create drama for events that had been concluded eight hours before even if it came off entirely manufactured at times. While we can wonder what a network like ESPN could have done with the Olympics—both the good and bad—it’s a moot thought as NBC is what we’re stuck with for the next 15 nights so we might as well settle in.
- Just for the heck of it, I watched the Phelps-Lochte 400m IM on the Internet when it happened (just after lunchtime in Chicago) and almost nine hours later when the network. The livestream had a generic Olympic Broadcast Network pair of announcers, both British, who managed to be both calmer and superior to their counterparts on NBC.
- Seriously, though, besides buffering issues because everyone is trying to use it, the streaming services are pretty great, especially when combined with the ancillary networks. Whatever you think of the ancillary network/Internet stream system (and I, for one, am totally cool with it), we’ve come a long way since the infamous Olympic Triplecast pay-per-view system of 1992.
- There was, disappointingly, barely any coverage of any other events during primetime. While NBC assumes viewers will avoid enough news not to spoil any of the events highlighted in their package, they also apparently assume that viewers have no interest in any of the dozens of other sports happening besides the three highlighted tonight. While Costas did briefly share highlights of Team USA’s women’s volleyball win earlier today, there was absolutely no mention of impressive wins today by Team USA’s women’s soccer and women’s basketball teams, both of whom are gold-medal favorites.
- A few years ago, the USOC made plans to create their own television network. This didn’t sit well with the IOC, who was already pissed about the amount of revenue the USOC and America’s television coverage generated for them versus the smaller slices of pie everyone else, including the IOC, got. This behind-the-scenes scuffle is now cited as one of the reasons Chicago wasn’t selected for the 2016 Olympics but the two have since kissed and made up on revenue sharing so now everyone gets richer from “amateur” athletics.
- Of course, that battle stemmed from the fact that televising the Olympics are big business. Commercial spots during Olympics coverage aren’t quite as expensive or coveted as during the Super Bowl, but they’re still expensive enough that NBC wants to squeeze in as much as possible in every primetime block. I stopped counting halfway through tonight’s coverage, but in the first half of tonight’s four-hour block, there were 12 commercial breaks. Make it rain, Peacock.
- NBC brought back those teasers showing how long until the next major event of the night. That is kind of nice, knowing I had 12 minutes to skip a few high bar routines, take the dog out, and grab another beer before the big Phelps-Lochte showdown.
- As far the profile segments were concerned, I’m least convinced of the need for Meredith Viera’s look-back on the Opening Ceremonies, which have been broken down a billion different ways in the 24 hours since they first aired. But, hey, another reason to bring in Seacrest to tell us how many people posted on Facebook and Twitter about the Queen. Thank God we know what Joe Jonas thought about the event.
- America, you’re missing out on team handball. It is a rough and tumble, fast-paced bloodsport that could easily by the Summer Olympics’ version of curling: the quirky, niche sport that gains popularity for two weeks because it’s so quirky. And violent.
- Bob Costas’ reference to being the illegitimate son of Alistair Cooke was great and so, so Costas-like.