NBC Sports and Olympics senior advisor Dick Ebersol defended the network’s Olympic Coverage in an interview with Sports on Earth. Some of his claims, even for the 65-year-old product of a different era, were insular and downright bizarre to hear in 2012.
Ebersol assessed the media criticism of NBC’s coverage simply.
1. The critics believe that the Olympics are a great sporting event.
2. Dick Ebersol and NBC believe that the Olympics are a great television event.
This is a false dichotomy. Sports are not just great television. They are the only great television left. The spectacle is awesome. The drama is inherent. Sports have the unpredictability reality TV can only cheaply mimic. They are the only programming that loses potency on DVR. This is why major college and professional leagues are signing billion-dollar TV deals (and probably still undervaluing themselves). This is why ESPN is by far the most powerful entity on cable and, for some, the only reason to keep a cable subscription. This is why other networks, including NBC, are courting leagues and creating sports networks, some with more success than others.
Covering the Olympics presents a unique challenge. There is too much content. Choices must be made. When the Olympics are in a different time-zone, it makes tremendous sense to show a highlight package in primetime at night for those who work a straight 9-5. No one is disputing that. What irks people is deliberately not showing important events live during the day.
The Men’s 100m final took place at 5pm ET last Sunday. With the four fastest sprinters ever in one heat, it was one of the tournament’s marquee events. NBC did not show it live on any television platform. NBC finally showed it tape-delayed after 11pm ET. That was not “great television.” That was not providing viewers what they preferred. That was sapping all the vitality from a great event to string as many viewers through a four-hour advertising barrage as humanly possible.
NBC dismisses the audience that wants live events as insignificant. Then the next day points out how website and mobile platforms have had more than 1 billion pageviews during the Olympics. There is an obvious joke about folks frantically reloading to get their feeds to refresh, but that is still a lot of people. If that number truly is insignificant and people prefer the tape delay in primetime, there is no reason to not show it live.
“The key is storytelling,” he says. “That’s by far the most important part of the Olympics. It’s the most important part of television. It’s not enough just to show the Games. We have to give people a reason to care, a reason to be invested.
Great Olympic stories should be told. No one disputes NBC doing an Oscar Pistorius or a 1996 gymnastics segment. What becomes irksome is loading down the coverage with boilerplate Olympic stories to fulfill the “storytelling” mantra. Generic”American Athlete A trained really hard to win Gold” and “Athlete B cannot win but is really happy to be representing his poor country” stories are silly and repetitive. There is also a difference between storytelling with the Olympics and active story manipulation.
Editing between events distorts the story. Liu Xiang received perhaps a minute or two on NBC’s coverage. Misty and Kerri’s quest for gold received 66 minutes last night. More than one third of last night’s primetime window presented the eternal story of men enjoying taut asses in skimpy bikini bottoms.
Editing within events distorts the story. NBC’s coverage, merely focusing on the Americans and the other medal winners, telegraphs the results. When there’s a shocking upset in a race, you know even without forewarning, since NBC “randomly” spent two minutes talking about the seventh favorite in a swimming final.
“I’ve been watching the BBC, which is one of the most respected entities in the world, right? Well, they will cut away from races to show a British athlete who is finishing fifth. They openly root for their athletes on the air. It’s a different approach, but we have never done that. Nobody ever uses the word ‘we’ in our coverage, and if they did they wouldn’t last long.
False. We brought up the BBC’s coverage before. British viewers aren’t missing anything. They have 24 continuous television streams running everything live. What Ebersol seems to be referring to is BBC One providing general coverage and bouncing around to events. I, along with many other media members covering this event from the States, have watched that coverage through an illicit stream, because NBC’s live feeds are a buffered mess. This is a gross distortion.
The BBC is funded by the British taxpayer and serving a British audience. Not surprisingly, they point out British athletes. Beyond that the coverage is largely unobtrusive. Concise previews and breakdowns before and after live events. Interviews with athletes domestic and foreign. A few segments sprinkled into the mix. They show sports. It is refreshing.
Commentators may not use “we” at NBC, though Rowdy Gaines, Brandy Chastain and the gymnastics announcers do tend to SCREAM OVER THE NAT SOUND WHEN AMERICANS START DOING WELL IN A FASHION THAT CAN BE RATHER ANNOYING AND DETRACT FROM THE EXPERIENCE.
“You know what I think is the greatest moment of the Olympics?” he asks. “It’s my favorite 20 minutes in all of sports. It’s at the end of the Opening Ceremonies, when all the athletes are standing in one place. There are, what, 204 countries there? There could be countries at war, and their athletes are standing 100 or 200 yards form each other.
“And you realize that could be our world, under ideal circumstances. Think about that. I have tried to never lose that image. We don’t need white hats and black hats. We just need to tell the stories.”
Another annoying motif of NBC’s coverage: excessive schmaltz. Look how awesome and uniformly great the Olympics is at every opportunity. Every nation coming together. Neighborhoods being revitalized. Boundaries being crossed. Isn’t this fucking great!
The Olympics is not great. Like FIFA, the IOC is avowedly apolitical. They stand for nothing, accepts cash from anyone and partner with some of the world’s most brutal, repressive dictatorships. Saudi Arabia sent a token woman? Check sexism off the list of wrongs the Olympics has conquered. Looking forward to Sochi when we can revel in Russian democracy and discuss how the Russians finally releasing Pussy Riot is a harbinger for a bright future.
Ebersol summarizes his point most succinctly here.
“People want the Olympic experience, to gather around their television, to be told the story of the Olympics. I think we’ve taken my mentor Roone’s model, and we’ve improved it. ”
NBC has refined a 40-year-old template, based on a myth of the nuclear, television family. That is the root of the criticism. With the advent of cable and later the ubiquitous Internet, power has shifted to the consumer. NBC is no longer one of three broadcast networks with a mandate to explain the outside world for an unwitting audience. It is one of countless entertainment outlets.
Viewers don’t need NBC to explain to them who Usain Bolt is. That can be done with a few taps of a smart phone. Viewers come to NBC to watch him run, and it would be preferable to be able to watch that when it is still compelling. The ratings have been awesome, because NBC has a monopoly over a product viewers want to watch. For a true referendum on what viewers think of NBC, see how many of them stick around for MLS, the NHL and NBC’s fall primetime lineup.
[Photo via Getty]