Bashing NBC’s Olympic coverage has become something of a biennial national pastime. We habitually complain about any number of the network’s production items, from the host’s wardrobe selections, to the national embarrassment that is the tape delayed primetime coverage. Yet, we return in large numbers every Olympiad to watch results hours old as if the fate of the western world was hanging in the balance.
Ratings for the London 2012 games through the first week were fairly robust (although one can argue that this is due, at least in part, to a two-plus year wave of American Anglophilia). So it seems now that our national relationship with the Peacock Network’s Olympic telecast resembles the fixation a bygone NBC sitcom character had with a different type of bird – namely Cosmo Kramer and that Kenny Rogers chicken. Like Kramer, we publically profess that we can’t stand the vial product that menaces the neighborhood with its abhorrent advertising and glittery clutter. But also like Kramer, we will secretly endure our own “menaces” of tape delays and irrelevant vignettes just to get our Olympic fix. Knowig we are guaranteed to watch a gold medal moment seems to help us get over the tape delay.
Packaged reality show
By now, the secret is out that the bulk of NBC Olympic coverage is essentially intended as a pre-packaged reality show (complete in 2012 with Ryan Seacrest himself), and not a real-time sporting event. The debate over the approproatiness of tape delay in the digital age is a real one. After a decades long relationship with NBC, the All-England Lawn Tennis Club apparently had enough of the network’s tape delay mentality. The backlash over the lack of live coverage seemed to help ESPN wrestle the Wimbledon rights away from NBC this past year. Despite tape delay being utterly disheartening to many of us sports fanatics, we watch the Olympics. We watch because, like that Kenny Rogers chicken, the “seasoning” on the product can become addictive and fleeting. We as an Olympic viewing audience endure better than Newman being forced to eat broccoli on the Kenny Rogers takeout line.
Sum greater than the parts
NBC also seems to know that any successful reality show needs something beyond even the contestants (or athletes in this case). Like any long running reality show NBC’s Olympic broadcasts need solid, engaging and reliable TV presenters. If we put aside the ax-grinding and twitter campaigns and we examine the individual parts of the NBC telecast we find that some commentators and analysts are doing their very best career work. In fact, by following some of the individual event coverage one can rightly conclude that the segments of the NBC production are better than the overall product.
The network will certainly have a decision to make if and when 9 time primetime host Bob Costas decides to pull a Rulon Gardner move and put his tie in the middle of the anchor’s desk, symbolically indicating his retierment. But for now, certain personalities have left a memorable impression that will make us hunger for more the next time the Olympics come around. But then again, isn’t that consistent with feeding any good fast food addiction? Eventually, when the bucket goes empty, the supplier needs to leave a collection of memorable tastes in the mouth of the consumers to make them want to come back for more.
Here are a few members of the NBC broadcast team for the London 2012 Olympics deserving of a medal:
5. Pat O’Brien – Seeing Pat O’Brien perched in a studio above the courts of the All-England Club leant a good feel to the Olympic tennis tournament. O’Brien is a veteran of several U.S. Open tennis telecasts for CBS, a fact acknowledged by the Bryan brothers in a post-match interview. O’Brien was also a correspondent and somewhat campy, but watchable, late-night host for a number of Olympic telecasts. Adding O’Brien to Olympic tennis provided the viewership with a steady connection between the sport’s major championship and the Olympics. His apperance signaled that, even though the event was staged at Wimbledon, it was distinct from “The Championships” (as Wimbledon in June is commonly called).
4. Al Michaels – You can never go wrong with having the man who delivered perhaps the most memorable call in Olympic (and sports) history working the games. Michales is a conduit between us modern day 21st century viewers and the Olympic glory days of old. Seeing a piece about the 1972 gymnastics competition featuring the legendary Jim McKay, and then cutting to McKay’s old colleague Michaels live at Wimbledon, was a fantastic Olympic viewing experience.
3. Rowdy Gaines – Gaines has become synonymous with swimming. His natural enthusiasm is a big draw for fans that are largely accustomed to having the sport “drop in” on their lives once every 4 years. He had the privilege of calling Michael Phelps’ last race, and his well-timed line of “all I can say is thank you” is quickly becoming part of the permanent American sports highlight reel. Expect to see it played for generations to come.
2. John McEnroe – McEnroe has long eschewed taking part in Olympic coverage. But with the 2012 Olympics taking place in a country and city where he is revered as a sport’s icon (note his hologram display at the Lawn Tennis Museum at Wimbledon as evidence) “super brat” simply could not have stayed away this time. McEnroe’s call alongside his partner Ted Robinson for the Murray-Federer Gold Medal match was perhaps some of his finest work. McEnroe was as technically proficient as always. He also brought the viewer into the Olympic experience by asking obvious questions many of us have – like why announcements are made in French (its an official language of the IOC). McEnroe’s success as a sports broadcaster has always been due, in part, to never taking himself or the moment too seriously. Johnny Mac becomes an inquisitive viewer just like the rest of us.
1. Teddy Atlas – Alongside the excellent Bob Papa, Atlas, who in yesteryear was once a part of the Mike Tyson camp, has landed another knockout in this his fourth Olympics covering boxing. The 2012 Olympic Boxing Tournament degenerated into something of a sordid cesspool. Chicanery ran rampant. When faced with this hijinks, Atlas covered the angles just right. He essentially told us that we should not be shocked that there was gambling going on in this casino. Atlas’s explanation of the mechanical elements of the sport is also unmatched. Like McEnroe, he has the ability to welcome in the casual observer who doesn’t know much about the sport. Atlas often achieves this by drawing analogies to other sports. He and Papa’s comparison to the nearby fencing competition during one bout was particlarly artful. Again like McEnroe, being a sportsman grants Atlas automatic credibility in using this technique. NBC would be wise to look to have Atlas take on greater roles in future Olympic broadcasts. Yet, those hoping boxing remains a credible part of the Olympic program can only hope that, given both his bold ideas and obvious passion for the amateur version of the sport, Atlas is somehow taped to be the new Olympic sheriff first.
http://sports.yahoo.com/news/nbc-setting-olympics-ratings-marks-175016412–spt.html- providing a snapshot of NBC’s ratings for the first week of the 2012 Olympics
http://nbcsportsgrouppressbox.com/bios/- for bios of NBC Sports personalities covering the 2012 Olympics
http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-07-05/espn-gets-wimbledon-rights-for-12-years.html – discussing ESPN’s Wimbledon broadcast deal