NBC Opens Olympics With ‘Worst Hand Imaginable’

Last year, NBC Sports executives called the Tokyo Olympics the most challenging competition ever.

Now that experience is starting to feel like a pastry walk.

For this month’s Winter Olympics in Beijing, NBC faces an even more complex mix of challenges, threatening to derail one of the network’s signature productions and one of its attractions. The last major to broadcast television.

The list of headaches is long: an event with almost no spectators, which drains the excitement from the arena and the ski slopes; The threat of star athletes tested positive for Covid, potentially shattering their Olympic dreams; and most of its publishers, including Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski, provide color commentary from a network complex in Stamford, Conn., rather than China.

Rising political tensions between the United States and China, including China’s human rights abuses, add a cloud of trouble to an often pleasant sight.

“My friends and colleagues at NBC have been handled in the worst way imaginable,” said Bob Costas, who was the network’s Olympics host for more than two decades.

The success of the Olympics is important to NBC. Even as streaming services like Netflix and Disney+ draw millions from broadcast networks, sports are still a reliable moneymaker. The company has the exclusive rights to broadcast the Olympics through 2032, at a cost of $7.75 billion.

Ratings for the Olympics have dropped in recent years – and plummeted during 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.

Still, the Olympics remains such a focus for NBC’s brand that the five-ring logo has been plastered in the bottom-right corner of broadcasts for most of last year.

And NBC Sports executives say they face the challenge of creating a compelling event.

“The good news is that if there’s any good news, in dealing with live sports during a pandemic, is that we have a lot of experience at this point,” said Pete Bevacqua, President of NBC Sports. “Pete Bevacqua, president of NBC Sports. “Think of the past two years in our portfolio. We have become skilled out of necessity. We saw that in Tokyo, where we have an unbelievably large presence at Stamford.”

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

But because of China’s Covid-19 restrictions, most sports commentators will be at Stamford, part of a team of about 1,500 people there. And NBC won’t have access to many of the aspects of the Game that viewers are already familiar with: engaging dialogue segments about a host city; live photos of an athlete’s family and friends who have traveled abroad to watch loved ones compete; The commentators flocked to a contestant who had just scored gold.

NBC will deploy alternatives, including setting up cameras in the homes of athletes’ family members to try to recreate the celebratory television moments audiences expect to see. And in interviews, producers and executives say NBC’s wealth of Olympic production experience will only help matters.

Mike Weisman, a longtime former NBC Sports executive who oversaw coverage of the 1988 Summer Olympics.

However, due to China’s strict virus testing policy, there are promotional benefits to other NBC Universal divisions that the company will have to give up this year. For years, NBC’s morning franchise, “Today,” as well as “NBC Nightly News,” moved their broadcasts to the Olympic host city, helping to boost ratings in the process.

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 program hasn’t gone to the Olympics. Lester Holt, host of “NBC Nightly News,” will also stay in New York.

“Do you want to have ‘Today’ there? Yes,” said Jim Bell, former executive producer of “Today,” as well as NBC’s Olympics coverage from 2012 to 2018. Do you want fans in the stands? You bet. Do you want to take Johnny and Tara and drop them on the streets of Beijing? Of course. But if you can’t have the Olympics because of the pandemic, it’s better not to have it.”

Politics is adding another twist. NBC executives often see the Olympics as a political treat for viewers who transcend ideological differences. But even that bubble was pierced. Last week, Republicans in the House of Representatives sent a letter to NBC executives asking about the “level of influence” the Chinese government would have over the broadcast of the Games on television. network. In December, President Biden announced a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics because of China’s human rights abuses.

“The circumstances had an inevitable impact on the whole thing,” Mr. Costas said. “Ordinary people now fully understand the nature of the Chinese regime. It’s not something only news buffs know about. This is widely understood. ”

Mr. Weisman, a former NBC Sports producer, said, “Especially in China, I think it might not have the great celebration that it used to make the Olympics so special in the past. past.”

NBC said it will use Andrew Browne, an editorial director at Bloomberg and formerly China editor at The Wall Street Journal, and Jing Tsu, a professor at Yale, to help provide the analysis. about China in broadcasts.

“The world, as we all know, is a really complicated place right now,” Molly Solomon, executive producer of NBC’s Olympics program, said at a press conference in January. “And we understand that there are some difficult issues related to 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 being held. “

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

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

Executives have vowed to make Peacock easier to use this year after an outcry from subscribers who complained the streamer was an annoying mess for the Summer Olympics. last.

There’s one bright spot for NBC: The network is guaranteed to boost ratings by mid-Olympic. On February 13, NBC will broadcast the Super Bowl, and right after the Vince Lombardi trophy performance, the network will go straight into Olympic coverage. In recent years, shows after the Super Bowl have often attracted more than 20 million viewers.

With the Super Bowl slowly drifting into late February, this will be the first time these two signature sporting events have overlapped. NBC switched its position with CBS during the Super Bowl broadcast rotation to ensure that it could air both events on the same day. NBC executives call it Super Golden Sunday.

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

Bevacqua, president of NBC Sports, said he hopes that the Olympics, instead of being a slam dunk, will be a tonic for viewers exhausted by the pandemic.

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

Mr. Costas said he expected NBC to be smart and resourceful. “But of course, no matter how well they do a job, those circumstances will have an impact,” he said.

Tiffany Hsu contribution report. NBC Opens Olympics With ‘Worst Hand Imaginable’

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