NBC opens Olympics with 'worst hand imaginable'

Last year, NBC Sports executives called the Tokyo Olympics the toughest corporate game ever. Now that experience is starting to feel li...


Last year, NBC Sports executives called the Tokyo Olympics the toughest corporate game ever.

Now that experience is starting to feel like a cakewalk.

For this month’s Winter Games in Beijing, NBC faces an even tougher mix of challenges, threatening to downsize one of the network’s flagships and one of the last big draws on television.

The list of headaches is long: an event with almost no spectators, draining the excitement from the arena and the ski slopes; the threat of star athletes positive test for covid, potentially dashing their Olympic dreams; and the vast majority of its advertisers, including Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski, offering color commentary from a network complex in Stamford, Connecticut, instead of China.

Rising political tensions between the United States and China, including over China’s human rights abuses, add a troubling cloud to a typically feel-good show.

“My friends and colleagues at NBC were treated in the worst way imaginable,” said Bob Costas, who served as the network’s prime-time host for more than two decades.

The success of the Games is essential for NBC. Even though streaming services like Netflix and Disney+ have drawn millions to broadcast networks, sports have remained a reliable source of income. The company holds exclusive rights to broadcast the Olympics until 2032, at a cost of $7.75 billion.

Ratings for the Olympics have fallen in recent years – and fell sharply at last year’s Summer Olympics. NBC has told advertisers to expect ratings to be lower than the 2018 Winter Olympics, according to three people familiar with the network’s ratings estimates.

The Olympics, however, remain so central to the NBC brand that the five-ring logo has been affixed to the bottom right corner of its broadcasts for much of the past year.

And NBC Sports executives said they were up to the challenge of producing a compelling event.

“The good news, if there is good news, in managing live sports in a pandemic is that we have a ton of experience at this point,” said Pete Bevacqua, president of NBC Sports. . “Think about the last two years of our portfolio. We have become skilled out of necessity. We saw it in Tokyo, where we had an incredibly large presence at Stamford.

NBC Sports anchor Mike Tirico is in Beijing and will host the first days of coverage from China. Craig Melvin, an NBC News anchor, will also be in Beijing, along with 600 other staff on the ground.

But due to China’s Covid-19 restrictions, most sportscasters will be at Stamford, part of a crew of around 1,500 there. And NBC won’t have access to many aspects of the Games that viewers are used to: charming travelogue segments about a host city; live footage of an athlete’s family and friends traveling to a foreign country to see a loved one compete; commentators rushing towards a competitor who has just won gold.

NBC will be rolling out workarounds, including installing cameras in the homes of athletes’ family members to try to replicate a celebratory televised moment that viewers have come to expect. And in interviews, producers and executives have said that NBC’s wealth of Olympic production experience will only help matters.

“The replays will be there, the slow motion will be there, the graphics, all of it will be visually spectacular,” said Mike Weisman, a longtime former executive producer at NBC Sports who oversaw coverage of the 1988 Summer Olympics.

Still, due to China’s strict virus testing policy, there are plenty of promotional perks for other parts of NBC Universal that the company will have to forfeit this year. For years, the NBC morning franchise, “Today,” as well as “NBC Nightly News,” moved their shows to the host city of the Olympics, helping boost ratings.

But this year, “Today” anchors Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb will stay in New York, the first time in nearly two decades that the morning show hasn’t traveled for the Olympics. NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt will also stay in New York.

“Would you rather have ‘Today’ there? Yeah,” said Jim Bell, former executive producer of “Today,” as well as NBC’s Olympics coverage from 2012 to 2018. “Would you rather have fans in the stands? You bet. Would you rather have Johnny and Tara and let them loose on the streets of Beijing? Sure. But if it’s about not having the Olympics because of the pandemic, that’s better than not having them. »

The policy adds another twist. NBC executives typically bank on the Olympics as a politics-tested treat for viewers that transcends ideological differences. But even that bubble has been punctured. Last week, House Republicans sent a letter to NBC executives asking “the extent of influence” the Chinese government will have over the network’s broadcast of the Games. In December, President Biden announced a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics because of human rights abuses in China.

“Circumstances inevitably put a damper on all of that,” Mr. Costas said. “The average person now fully understands the nature of the Chinese regime. This is not something that only information nerds are aware of. It is widely understood.

Mr Weisman, the former NBC Sports producer, said: “Especially in China, I think there may not be the same celebration of well-being that made the Olympics so special in the world. pass.”

NBC said it would use Andrew Browne, editorial director of Bloomberg and former China editor at the Wall Street Journal, and Jing Tsu, a Yale professor, to help provide analysis on China during the broadcasts.

“The world, as we all know, is a really complicated place right now,” Molly Solomon, executive producer of NBC’s Olympic coverage, said at a press conference in January. “And we understand that there are difficult issues regarding the host country, so our coverage will provide perspective on China’s place in the world and the geopolitical context in which these games are taking place.”

“But,” she continued, “athletes remain the centerpiece of our coverage.”

NBC is also hoping the Games can give its fledgling streaming app, Peacock, a boost. The company is encouraging people to sign up for a paid version of the app which will show all Olympic events live.

Executives have promised to make Peacock easier to use this year after an outcry from subscribers who complained the streamer was a baffling mess for last year’s Summer Games.

There’s a silver lining for NBC: the network is guaranteed to get a ratings boost amid the Olympics. On Feb. 13, NBC will air the Super Bowl, and immediately following the Vince Lombardi Trophy presentation, the network will jump straight into Olympic coverage. In recent years, programs following the Super Bowl have typically attracted more than 20 million viewers.

With the Super Bowl gradually drifting later in February, this will be the first time the two iconic sporting events have overlapped. NBC swapped places with CBS in the Super Bowl broadcast rotation to ensure it could air both events on the same day. NBC executives call it Super Gold Sunday.

“A once-in-a-lifetime moment,” Jenny Storms, NBCUniversal’s chief entertainment and sports marketing officer, said last month.

Mr Bevacqua, the chairman of NBC Sports, said he hoped the Olympics, instead of being depressing, would be a tonic for viewers exhausted by the pandemic.

“There are definitely challenges, and there are definitely harsh realities,” he said. “But I think the beauty of sport and the beauty of Olympic sports is really needed right now more than ever, and that’s the story we want to tell.”

Mr. Costas said he expected NBC to be smart and resourceful. “But inevitably, no matter how well they work, those circumstances will have an impact,” he said.

Tiffany Hsu contributed report.

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Newsrust - US Top News: NBC opens Olympics with 'worst hand imaginable'
NBC opens Olympics with 'worst hand imaginable'
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