At this point, it’s a tradition to complain about NBC’s coverage of the Olympic Games. Every even-numbered year, the world’s best and brightest trundle into one of the great metropolises (or Atlanta), determined to prove their mettle. And every even-numbered year, NBC uses its primetime coverage to cover the event like it’s an elaborate edition of the Today show. Plenty of critics have made this comparison, and it’s no accident: The same team responsible for Today is responsible for the network’s primetime Olympics coverage, and it follows the format of that morning show fairly closely. There’s a host at a centralized location, and then we go out to various news events as they happen. But we only stay for a little while, cutting between these events and the studio, where we might see an interview or a clips package about something that’s already happened, either hours or days or years ago. (Last night featured a Tom Brokaw tribute to World War II for no real reason.) It’s pre-digested glop, designed to disguise one of the world’s premier sporting events as an entertainment spectacle.
The harshest criticism reserved for NBC this year has been that the network refuses to broadcast anything live on TV. It’s not a criticism I’m partial to for a variety of reasons (namely that I found the network’s live-streaming site quite good and thought that side of things was responsive to criticism, particularly in the choice to live-stream the Closing Ceremonies where the Opening Ceremonies had not been), but the more I think about it, the more I realize that NBC probably prefers this model on a number of levels. Oh, sure, it’s more exciting to watch Michael Phelps win his umpteenth medal or see Gabby Douglas’ improbable rise live, to not know what’s going to happen. But when the Games are in Rio in 2016—and, thus, only an hour ahead of the East Coast—NBC is going to be subject to the tyranny of the clock. They won’t be able to perfectly plan an evening’s entertainment. They’ll have to show stuff as it happens.
By and large, NBC’s primetime coverage has been horrid. It’s one thing to cheer for the home team; every nation’s media does that. It’s quite another to seem to only be able to process events through that home-team-centric filter. Even worse, the network seems incapable of leaving behind its predetermined narratives, as when it spent essentially every day after Jordyn Wieber failed to qualify for the women’s all-around gymnastics finals continuing to make the narrative all about Wieber, even when it had clearly shifted to Douglas and Aly Raisman. NBC wants the Games to behave like a carefully predictable march forward, and when that actually happens—as with the coverage of Phelps or young swimming sensation Missy Franklin—then the network does a fairly adequate job of covering the “news” of the event. But when the Games stray from the predictable narrative and highlight unsung heroes or people from other countries who do amazing things, NBC is left scrambling to catch up.
But all of that leaves one staggering fact: These were by far the most-watched Summer Olympic Games in the history of the modern Nielsen counting methods. They were up slightly over Beijing. They were up quite a bit over Athens and Sydney. They were even up over Atlanta on most nights, and those Games were the ultimate celebration of late-1990s American hegemony. It’s fine to argue that since NBC is the only game in town, most people are going to get their Olympics in that fashion—as many have—but it doesn’t account for the way the network’s coverage has slowly built since it first started broadcasting the Olympics with the 1988 Summer Games. Up until then, ABC had held a virtual stranglehold on coverage, and it tended to treat the Games as a sporting event, with Jim McKay as your affable host, an Ed Sullivan of all things sport. NBC, from the start, decided to cover the Games as entertainment, and that approach grew more and more pronounced as time went on. When NBC first took over the Games, there was a sense that the event was a boondoggle for networks, something that disrupted the schedule to little economic benefit. NBC has turned the Games into entertainment, yes, but it’s also turned them into a money-making machine.
What’s interesting is that NBC’s coverage online and on its cable networks is largely free of this entertainment puffery. Hell, the network’s daytime and late-night coverage of the Games has also been very sports-oriented. These channels and programs showcase the less-prominent sports, the ones where the U.S. hasn’t done as well (like the weirdly popular handball, which is great fun to watch). The live-streaming allows viewers to watch two different sporting events in their entirety at any time, including the most popular events that will then pop up on the primetime broadcast. (I watched one of Franklin’s medal runs this way, sans incident, though I understand my experience with the player is decidedly atypical.) NBC’s non-primetime coverage wasn’t perfect for these Games, but it was a terrific effort, and it brought plenty of unheralded sports and athletes to prominence, instead of shoving non-Americans (and, well, non-Usain Bolts) off to the side. The channel NBC Sports, in particular, was a great smorgasbord of Olympics activity every day, all of it helmed by competent, intelligent commentators.
It’s curious that as the network’s non-primetime coverage continues to get better, then, that the network’s primetime coverage seems to just get worse with every Olympiad. Every evening’s broadcast was filled with so much nothingness that it started to feel like empty calories. As a longtime Olympics geek (who enjoys the way it combines two of my favorite things to make lists of: giant cities and sports), NBC often seemed determined to suck all the fun out of the Games. The commentators were awful. The coverage was insufferable. The insistence on cutting events so that they would play out over the entirety of the evening broadcast was almost always a dumb choice. The normally unflappable Bob Costas seemed like he’d seen better days. I can sympathize with the network’s decision to air everything on a tape delay (and actually found myself getting excited to check out stuff I knew the results for in the primetime show); what I find harder to sympathize with is the choice to make every night a movie with the same story arc: “Will America do well?” “Yay, America did well!” (And even then, the network seemed to believe America could only do well in about six or seven sports, only mentioning, say, Kayla Harrison’s judo triumph—our first gold in the sport—offhand.)
To that end, the Closing Ceremonies were actually one of the network’s better broadcasts, even as the Opening Ceremonies were one of its worst. NBC’s primetime Olympics coverage suffers from a terminal fear that we’ll get bored and decide to go check something else out. It grants itself a little leeway when it comes to gymnastics, track, and swimming—the big three—but it chops almost everything else up like it’s in a Cuisinart, turning the women’s gold-medal volleyball match, for instance, into about a 10-minute package. The network refuses to give anything space or room, and it constantly has its talking heads nattering away over top of whatever footage is onscreen. The Opening Ceremonies were bad in this regard because Costas and his booth pals (who included Ryan Seacrest, of all people) just didn’t seem to have any inclination to get into what was going on, and were more interested in their own running commentary. (That’s what I have Twitter for, Bob.)
But the Closing Ceremonies were different. Since the show was structured as an elaborate rock concert—with weird asides to celebrate, uh, supermodels and Monty Python—the network felt less pressure to constantly direct our attention toward whatever shiny baubles it had found lying on the side. It was more content to just show us the performances and the reactions of the now-famous athletes—like Franklin’s glee at seeing the Spice Girls—or the famous folks in the stands—like Prince Harry revealing he can’t whistle when he attempted to do so along with “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life.” Occasionally, Seacrest or Costas would drop an inanity—Seacrest wondering aloud why an octopus was at center stage was one particular lowlight—but for the most part, they got out of the way of the performers. This might simply be a function of the fact that the songs performed are mostly well-known (and if you didn’t know who was going to play, there was a giant onscreen chyron to inform you). But the network also largely let the less-familiar section put on by Brazil in celebration of the Rio games play without comment. Costas even waited for the end of the number to inform viewers that, yes, Pele was still Pele.
Now, this was still NBC, so it fucked plenty of things up. The full version of the Closing Ceremonies featured numerous songs cut for broadcast (so NBC could fit in an endless hour of clips packages and an airing of the Animal Practice pilot), and this editing often left the proceedings feeling weirdly airless. The network also decided to shunt an hour of the ceremonies—featuring The Who, among others—to its late-night show, in favor of the aforementioned pilot and your local news and weather, a ridiculous decision it’s made for the last several Games that makes no sense. It’s never going to be comfortable with long silences, so the lengthy portion of time that involved the athletes walking into the stadium as one and the extinguishing of the Torch (always both beautiful and moving moments) featured Costas and Seacrest peppering you with various asides, like old people who just won’t shut up behind you at a movie.
That opening hour, too, was dreadful, a long celebration of stuff NBC had already spent 16 days celebrating at length. (It also continued NBC’s weirdly skewed treatment of the genders, with both Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt getting hyper-dramatic movie scores to celebrate their considerable triumphs, while the U.S. women’s swimming and gymnastics teams got… “Call Me Maybe” and Phillip Phillips, respectively. It all underscores NBC’s weird, constant insistence that for male Olympians, this is serious business, but female Olympians are just there to have fun.) It all put me in mind of that episode of The Sopranos where Tony talked about how “remember when” was the lowest form of conversation, and it just wouldn’t end. Everything that could have been a narrative coming out of these games was rehashed and revisited, like a particularly long and boring family reunion that stretches on several days past when it should have ended. The network even fit in more Jordyn Wieber stuff, as if atoning for all of the bio packages you know it just had waiting in the vaults that it would never get to air. In the past, NBC used this first hour to air a cutdown of the men’s marathon that robbed that event of much of its power but at least paid tribute to its status as the last event of the Olympics. I’d always griped about that, but I’d be much happier about a marathon chopped to pieces than having to listen to NBC’s intensely narrative-focused frame for the Games yet another time.
But for everything NBC fucks up in its Olympics coverage—and for everything it will fuck up until some other network grabs the rights again (which will never, ever happen)—the problem will always be that it simply can’t fuck up the Olympics so much as to make them unwatchable. It may have utterly failed in its primetime broadcast to cover the Olympics as well as they could be covered, but there’s just no way it can completely ruin the sheer joy of watching Bolt streak down the track or McKayla Maroney stick that vault or David Boudia make an improbably perfect run at the gold. NBC can edit and it can wheedle and it can package and it can distort, but it can’t strip away what is perfect about the Olympics and what will always be perfect about them. Sometimes, it’s just enough to watch somebody do something amazing, then see them smile as they realize what they’ve just done. Sometimes, it’s just enough to stare, agog, and ask yourself, “How did they do that?”
- Favorite “in the stands” moment: Boris Johnson rocking out to the Spice Girls.
- Favorite performance: Having not seen The Who (and I’m sure they were excellent), I’m going to have to say that I found the whole Brazilian number weirdly enthralling (particularly that gaucho in the green cowboy hat who was just standing around for no reason). The Pet Shop Boys were fun, and I quite liked the Spice Girls, in spite of myself. In the end, though, I think the best was Eric Idle, particularly once the whole stadium seemed to join him in “Bright Side.” And George Michael wasn’t bad either!
- Weirdest production decision: having all of those bands roll by on flat-bed trailers. A close second was that whole simultaneous tribute to David Bowie and fashion models, which was strange.
- Worst performance: Russell Brand isn’t the one to be singing “I Am The Walrus,” I’m afraid. And Liam Gallagher was just enough off on “Wonderwall” to be painful. But I think the winner has to be whatever the hell was done to “We Will Rock You.” Good lord was that awful.
- Hey, that’s what Timothy Spall was talking about in his Random Roles interview! Good to see you, Sir Winston!
- So, what? The Queen just couldn’t be bothered to show up?
- NBC worked absolutely no sporting highlights from the day prior into the broadcast, which was too bad. The basketball gold-medal game between the U.S. and Spain was well-fought, as were the water polo and handball gold-medal games. (I particularly enjoyed the French “Usain Bolt” moment on the handball medal podium.) And it might have been the last time we ever get to see modern pentathlon, which is… something. Even a cutdown of those three gold-medal games would have been immensely preferable to all of those clips packages.
- I’ve always enjoyed when the mayor of one city hands off the Olympic flag to the mayor of the next. Watching Rio’s mayor wave the flag back and forth was a fun moment, particularly when you consider how the World Cup and Olympics are really going to put Brazil on the map in a big way as a growing world power.
- The leading candidate for the 2020 Games is Tokyo. Do you think Opening Ceremonies in Rio and then Tokyo will finally break the world’s brain? Please pitch your scenarios for both below. (I think Rio should just rely on its greatest cultural export: thousands upon thousands of perfectly toned asses.)
- There was a brief moment when Costas chuckled about how, hey, having the Games only an hour ahead of the East Coast would solve a lot of problems for NBC, as if attempting to extend an olive branch to the #nbcfail crowd on Twitter. Trust me, Bob. We’ll all find something else to complain about even when everything’s live. (And good luck figuring out how the fuck you will make Sochi feel like it;s happening as we;re watching.)
- I alluded to this above, but I loved the live-streaming player. I got so much use out of for these games, and I found it sort of a dud back in 2010. I suspect it will be even better come Sochi in 2014.
- Al Michaels was much less of a presence during these Games than I thought he would be. He was a staple of the great ABC coverage of the ’80s Games, and he just wasn’t as vital this time out. I don’t really know why.
- Thanks for reading our Olympics coverage! It was a smashing success, and that’s thanks to all of you. We’ll see you in Sochi!