The COVID-19 pandemic has seen a lot of remote broadcasting (already a growing trend in pre-pandemic times), but maybe the most significant event yet where the event announcers will be completely remote (rather than in an isolated part of the same building, as with the 2020 NBA bubble) is the 2022 Beijing Olympics. Christine Brennan of USA Today broke the news Wednesday (interestingly, after a NBC video presentation on the Olympics and the Super Bowl that did not take questions and did not mention this) that all of NBC’s event announcers (play-by-play and analysis) will be calling events from their broadcast facilities in Stamford, Connecticut. While NBC had planned to use remote announcers for many of the events this year before this (as they did for many of the Summer Olympics events in Tokyo last year), that’s now escalating to include the teams from top sports that were initially supposed to be on site (figure skating, snowboarding, and alpine skiing). Here’s more on that from Brennan’s piece:
As the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games approach and COVID-19 concerns mount, NBC Sports will not send any of its announcing teams to China, a spokesperson told USA TODAY Sports Wednesday afternoon.
“The announce teams for these Olympics, including figure skating, will be calling events from our Stamford (Conn.) facility due to COVID concerns,” Greg Hughes, senior vice president communications, NBC Sports, said in a phone interview.
“We’ll still have a large presence on the ground in Beijing and our coverage of everything will be first rate as usual, but our plans are evolving by the day as they are for most media companies covering the Olympics.”
…Snowboarding analyst Todd Richards told USA TODAY Sports that NBC changed course this week over concerns about COVID-related restrictions.
“I think they were a little bit wary that if someone tested positive for COVID, the Chinese government basically takes you and sequesters you,” he said. “NBC has no control, so they wanted to have more control over the situation.”
This does not extend to the studio teams, which is the “large presence on the ground” that Hughes mentions. Mike Tirico will still be hosting from Beijing (at least, until he leaves partway through to go host the Super Bowl and host Olympic coverage remotely from Los Angeles in the days leading up to that event), as will many others. There will also be plenty of on-the-ground correspondents. But Molly Solomon (president and executive producer, NBC Olympics production) told Brennan they’ll have more people in Stamford than in Beijing (something that was also true in Tokyo, but Tokyo did feature some on-site announcing), saying “With COVID’s changing conditions and China’s zero-tolerance policy, it’s just added a layer of complexity to all of this so we need to make sure we can provide the same quality experience to the American viewers. That’s why we are split between the two cities.”
Look, on some levels, this move makes a lot of sense. There have been a lot of concerns raised about China’s announced plans for prolonged quarantines of anyone who tests positive (which Richards is alluding to), both from NBC analysts like Tara Lipinski and from those who might have gone to these games for other networks (like ESPN’s Ray Ferraro). And it’s been mentioned that the Chinese government has regularly changed its COVID-19 rules on short notice, and that that could happen again. And there are the concerns about possible governmental tracking of media members and their devices (see this safety advisory from the Committee To Protect Journalists last week, which recommended that those going to the Games bring old, wiped devices rather than their normal electronics). Limiting the amount of people that NBC’s actually going to have there reduces a lot of potential headaches for both those people and for the network, and it’s also likely much safer for the commentators than prolonged travel is at the moment with the spread of the Omicron variant.
But with that said, this does seem like it’s going to diminish the commentary at least somewhat. Remote announcing setups have come a long way, especially in the past couple years, but it’s still impossible for announcers to get every angle of a situation they could see or hear if they were there in person. And that’s not to mention the technical difficulties that have often shown up on remote broadcasts. And there’s also a 13-hour time difference from Beijing to Stamford, so these announcers will now often be working in the middle of the night.
None of that’s to say that NBC made the wrong call here, and they certainly have more information than we do on the challenges that would have come from sending these announcing teams as planned. But this will be an extremely unusual high-profile event without on-site announcing teams. And it will be worth watching to see how that affects the broadcasts.
[USA Today]; NBC Beijing Olympics logo from NewsCast Studio]