Ken Fang: NBC’s decision to go live in all time zones. It allowed people on the West Coast to watch the Olympics while not having to wait three hours after events aired in the East. Ratings were carried by Western markets like Salt Lake City, Denver and San Diego, solidifying NBC’s decision to finally allow the entire country to watch the Olympics “live.”
Andrew Bucholtz: Yeah, there were still some complaints about certain events airing on the primetime coverage well after the fact, but as we discussed on the latest AA podcast, this was a big step forward for NBC compared to past Games. First off, everything was available live on streaming feeds, a contrast to some Olympics where the streams of things NBC planned to show later in primetime were blocked. So there was always at least some way to see what you wanted, even if it wasn’t the ideal one.
Beyond that, making the primetime coverage available across time zones was a huge move; it let viewers outside Eastern Time keep up with what the rest of the country was being shown, which did include several live events, and NBC didn’t really lose out on audience here, as they reran much of the coverage later for those who missed it while at work and didn’t record it. The ratings in many Mountain and Pacific time markets were great, so it looks like NBC’s call here was embraced not just by the hardcore sports fans they previously said were the ones pushing for live, but by the populace in general. And overalll, NBC’s coverage moved more towards the Olympics as sport rather than as manufactured drama, something they’ve long been criticized for.
KF: The tonnage of events available online was good. It gave viewers an opportunity to watch curling matches if a NBCUniversal network was locked into showing something else from earlier in the day.
AB: Absolutely, and it should be noted that while there were still some complaints about streaming issues, they appeared to be way down compared to previous Games. The technology here seemed to work pretty well. And streaming was useful for after-the-fact as well as live, with everything from key moments to full events archived on NBC’s Olympics site.
KF: On the announcing side, Kenny Albert had to be one of the MVPs for NBC/NBCSN sometimes calling two hockey games in one day. Whether it was a women’s game or the men’s hockey tournament, Albert was on top of trends and worked well with his partners, whether it was AJ Mleczko or Mike Milbury.
AB: Absolutely, and I thought John Walton and Gord Miller both did an excellent job on hockey play-by-play as well. Mleczko stood out to me as a strong voice, and I like NBC’s call to feature her as a color analyst on an upcoming NHL game. Beyond that, I thought most of the NBC play-by-play voices, commentators and reporters were strong. Groups that particularly stood out to me included Todd Harris/Todd Richards/Tina Dixon on snowboarding, Jason Knapp/Kevin Martin/Trenni Kusnierek on curling, and Trace Worthington/Jonny Moseley/Luke Van Valin/Kelli Stavast on freestyle skiing. For me, those broadcast teams in particular hit a great balance of explaining their sports to new viewers while providing useful insight for those who regularly watch.
Beyond that, biathlon/cross-country skiing analyst Chad Salmela’s combination of insight and enthusiasm was also great, giving us some of the most memorable calls of the Games, and Steve Schlanger and Al Trautwig respectively did an excellent play-by-play job for those sports, with Damon Hack’s biathlon reporting solid as well. And I thought the Terry Gannon/Johnny Weir/Tara Lipinski booth for figure skating and the closing ceremonies was impressive; everyone loves Johnny and Tara, and they hit the right mix between serious and fun as well as between critical and praising for me, but Gannon deserves a ton of credit for making that broadcast work, keeping things on track when needed and having fun with the analysts when appropriate. He played the Dave Pasch role to Weir/Lipinski’s Bill Walton, and did so very well.
On the studio side, I think Mike Tirico did very well sliding in as NBC’s main Olympic host. We talked about his performance in more depth on that podcast, but for me, Tirico’s strengths came from being conversational with viewers and with the athletes and commentators he interviewed, and for largely presenting what was happening with maybe less of a focus on his own personal essays than predecessor Bob Costas. Costas’ work had a lot of merits in its own right, but it felt appropriate that Tirico handled things his own way rather than trying to duplicate Costas. Other studio plaudits go to Mary Carillo (who was excellent as usual in presenting some unique cultural stories, and should have been featured more), Jimmy Roberts (who delivered some terrific features), and Liam McHugh, Carolyn Manno, Ahmed Fareed, Rebecca Lowe and Fred Roggin, all of who did solid work as hosts across NBC’s channels. And in an addition by subtraction, it was excellent that NBC parted ways with Matt Lauer ahead of these Games, as his Olympic coverage was a perennial lowlight for me. Lauer’s 2016 coverage of Ryan Lochte will long be taught as an example of how not to do journalism.
KF: NBC’s failure to trust curling when the USA men were in the midst of their amazing run to the gold medal was mind boggling. There were times when curling would be pushed to CNBC in the late afternoon on the East Coast, some 13 hours after some matches had ended. While NBC will say it did so to maximize an audience, it would be a disservice to those who were hoping to watch some live curling.
The original plans were to air the men’s curling gold medal match on NBCSN at 3 a.m. Saturday, four hours after it would have begun, but that decision was reversed when the US reached the final.
While curling’s profile was definitely raised in PyeongChang, here’s hoping NBC will provide some more live coverage in Beijing four years from now.
AB: Yeah, some of the curling decisions were odd, with plenty of matches only aired on television real late at night. At least streaming was an option, and at least they made the right call in the end to televise the final live. Beyond that, I wasn’t a big fan of the amount of primetime coverage of downhill skiers’ training runs. We get it, NBC, you love Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin, but the amount of coverage of non-competition skiing felt excessive when so much else was going on. It might have made more sense to focus on a sport where medals were actually on the line and to just show the training runs of the top U.S. skiers as a cut-in.
Along similar lines, there were sometimes some curious decisions on what to air during the judged ski and snowboard events. It was appreciated that NBC didn’t only show the U.S. athletes, but they still sometimes missed quite important runs in favor of less significant ones. An example came during the ski slopestyle final, where Canadian Evan McEachran’s first run (which gave him a 89.40 and put him in second place) wasn’t shown on the televised broadcast, but several non-Americans further down the leaderboard had their first runs shown. McEachran didn’t medal in the end, but it would have been nice to see what competitors were trying to beat on their second and third runs.
KF: Bode Miller was a great skier, but winning medals doesn’t necessarily translate into being a great commentator. Working in his debut as NBC’s Olympic skiing analyst with Dan Hicks, Miller often sounded detached and uninterested. While he did offer some good insights into what the skiers were seeing on the mountain, Miller’s droning monotonous voice would offset any positives he gave.
While Miller couldn’t be expected to be on the level of Hicks’ other Olympic partner, Rowdy Gaines, he didn’t provide any enthusiasm in the booth nor did he show any sign that made him an engaging personality as a skier. Perhaps another four years of reps heading into Beijing might help.
AB: Miller was definitely a lowlight, and proof that it takes more than just technical knowledge to be an interesting broadcaster. He brought in some useful insights at times, but the lack of enthusiasm was palpable. And his “joke” about Manuela Mölgg’s career declining thanks to marriage was a low point of these Games, and his halfhearted apology fit right in with his overall approach. Another problematic on-air comment came from hockey analyst Mike Milbury, who glossed right over Slava Voynov’s extremely serious domestic violence charges as an “unfortunate incident” and took a lot of flak for doing so. Along those lines, the way NBC tried to avoid the Shaun White sexual harassment lawsuit didn’t look great. Given their rightsholder status and feel-good story focus, we shouldn’t expect the hardest-hitting journalism from them, but a little more acknowledgement of some issues would be appreciated.
Speaking of on-air comments that drew backlash, let’s go to the Opening Ceremony and Joshua Cooper Ramo, who made one of the dumbest comments imaginable about Japan as “an example” for South Korea. This is a guy supposedly brought in for his insight into “cultural and geo-political issues,” and yet he does something that anyone with any knowledge of the history involved between those counties would avoid. It makes sense that NBC opted not to feature him further after the blowback there, but they might want to be a little more careful with their commentators next time around. Also on the Opening Ceremony front, it wasn’t on the same level, but Katie Couric’s comment that the Dutch skate to work on frozen canals was also astounding, and it deserved the apology she eventually provided. Maybe next time around, NBC could focus a little more on the athletes and a little less on incorrect generalizations or problematic analogies about countries.
Beyond that, while NBC improved on the sport-versus-drama balance overall, there were still some moments where they absolutely dropped the ball in pursuit of the narrative. The key one might have been the women’s hockey gold-medal game between the U.S. and Canada. Yes, it was absolutely relevant to mention the U.S.’ previous gold-medal loss to Canada in Sochi, and the broadcast opening focus on that was fine. It would have also been fine to mention it at the end, and maybe a few times during the game. But Kenny Albert and Pierre McGuire continued to bring it up so much during the game that it lost all meaning, and it felt like they were hammering viewers over the head with that narrative. That was especially true with McGuire asking U.S. forward Gigi Marvin about that during an intermission interview, an interview so cringeworthy that McGuire’s NBC Olympics colleague Leslie Jones lit him up on Twitter:
— Leslie Jones 🦋 (@Lesdoggg) February 22, 2018
And that added to what wasn’t a strong Olympics for McGuire overall. His regular comparisons of U.S. women’s players to male NHLers took some flak, and his insistence on dropping biographical details in at every opportunity continued unabated. Can we get Leslie Jones to call women’s hockey next time instead?