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NBC's Olympics coverage was always going to be a failure when corporate profits are the top priority

  • On the first Sunday night of NBC's Tokyo Olympics coverage, the network opted to squish Alexis Sablone, the only American skater who qualified in the first-ever women’s street skateboarding Olympic final, to a muted tiny split-screen box while a loud Geico ad blasted on the larger box. "To be fair, Sablone was so far behind Nishiya and the other medalists that even a flawless performance wouldn’t have done much to get her on the podium," says Judy Berman. "Still, the disrespect toward an American Olympian rankled me (and no small number of other viewers), especially at the end of what had already been an extremely confusing first weekend of coverage from NBC. From Twitter and Reddit to Slack chats and real-life living rooms, everyone seemed to be expressing frustration with what we were seeing—or not seeing—out of Tokyo. Those gripes have, if anything, ramped up over the past week. Now, complaining about TV coverage of the Olympics is such a time-honored tradition that it might as well be a medal sport unto itself. But this year’s grumbling has been some of the loudest in recent memory. It’s easy to blame NBC—whose abysmal early ratings had plunged even lower by the end of last week—for this disaster. Is that fair, though? Could these pandemic games ever have been anything but anticlimactic?" While the pandemic has been a big factor in NBC's disastrous Olympics coverage, Berman says NBC's focus on corporate profits were always going to make its coverage unpopular. "In other words, some of viewers’ greatest frustrations surrounding the Tokyo Olympics are rooted in the challenges of making a $7.75 billion Olympics coverage deal that NBC signed in 2014—about a century ago in streaming-wars time—as lucrative as possible for NBC Universal, cable companies and advertisers," says Berman. "Certainly, that goes a long way towards explaining why a Geico ad took precedence over an American skateboarder’s last act in Tokyo. NBC deserves any blowback it gets for disrespecting Sablone and for many other baffling individual choices. (See also: well-founded exasperation from Greg Braxton at the L.A. Times over seeing Naomi Osaka shunted to cable while NBC aired rugby. ('The most famous female athlete in the world was being treated almost as a sideshow on a small stage,' Braxton writes, 'when she should have been in the center ring.') Ultimately, though, the impediment to better Olympics coverage is a larger system that entrusts NBCU and other bottom-line-driven media megacorps to deliver the world’s most important news, cultural and, yes, sports events to a public that deserves to know about them. Never is the need for a powerful, well-funded public broadcaster on the level of the BBC in the U.S. more apparent than it is during the Olympics. This might sound like a utopian solution, and maybe it is at this late, confusing stage in the life of American TV. But the Olympics are, in theory if not in practice, a utopian tradition. Pandemic or no pandemic, time difference or no time difference, streaming wars or streaming detente—coverage of the games that prioritizes corporate profits over service to viewers is always going to fall short."


    • NBC should learn to trust its audience, especially with coverage of Simone Biles' bronze medal-winning performance: "If the producers of the NBC broadcast want my advice — and I am sure they do not — I would have told them to air a tightly edited highlight reel of the women’s balance beam final at the top of the broadcast and let the night’s focus fall instead on what live events there are," says Matt Brennan. "Trust the hardcore gymnastics fans to watch live. Trust the prime-time audience to know what happened by now. Trust genuine Olympic surprises and upsets to create tension, not canned teases from Tirico, hosting from home base. If I weren’t waiting for Biles to turn up, I just might let myself be swept away."
    • Taylor Swift narrated an NBC video in tribute to Simone Biles after her bronze medal win: “What do we want from our heroes? What do we expect from them? What do we need from them?,” Swift says in the video. “What happens when they surprise us? When you have the attention of the world, everything you do takes on a bigger meaning. It can be a heavy burden. It can be a chance to change everything.”
    • COVID completely changed Olympic sound design: "The lack of spectators means that the roar of the crowd is entirely absent," says Joshua Reiss. "This alters the acoustics of the space. Sound echoes around a stadium very differently when there are no bodies and clothing to absorb it. And with relative silence compared to the constant high volume of tens of thousands of people, we end up hearing cicadas buzzing, lights humming, and camera shutters clicking. This is addressed partly by fake crowd noise. Customized recordings of cheering at similar events at previous Olympics are being played out of the speakers around the stadium. Many sports broadcasters have also been overlaying what they call an audio carpet, which is ambient sound of a full stadium when there is no action taking place. But canned crowd noise comes with challenges of its own as it clashes completely with the visuals of empty seats. From a sound design perspective, however, having empty stadiums is not all bad. Sometimes, it’s just different. Microphones are still placed very close to a sound source to capture just that sound. And with even less background noise, these spot mics are able to better capture impact sounds—the crack, slap, and thump associated with rackets, wheels, bodies, and earth colliding. We can hear more clearly the coaching on the sidelines and the shouting between players on a team...New methods for capturing, rendering, and even enhancing the sounds of Tokyo 2020 had specialists excited well before COVID-19 hit. More than ever before, these Olympics are being delivered in what is known as immersive audio. Microphones—3,600 of them—have been deployed all over, hung from closed-venue ceilings, embedded in rock-climbing walls, and placed on water polo goalposts. The variety of sounds they capture are mixed and broadcast in such a way that viewers hear what the athletes might hear and more."
    • Last week, NBC had network TV's largest weekly audience since CBS aired the Super Bowl: NBC had some positive news despite the Tokyo Games' first week falling 52.4% from the first week of the Rio Games.

    TOPICS: Summer Olympics, NBC, Simone Biles, Taylor Swift, NBC Sports, NBC Universal, Ratings, Sound Design

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