The epiphany came after the women’s 100-meter breaststroke final on Monday night, the event in which U.S. swimmer Lilly King defeated Russia’s Yulia Efimova. The race, of course, went beyond merely swimming, and credit NBC for bringing the other narrative to millions. First, King, the 19-year-old Indiana University sophomore, wagged her finger with Dikembe Mutombo-like verve at Efimova in the swimming ready room the day before the race, a gesture she later revealed was meant as a statement against the Olympic eligibility of Efimova, who had previously served a 16-month doping ban. That Efimova might not be the Olympic poster child for doping and that Americans should be careful about proclaiming themselves the home of the clean athlete was merely a secondary story. This was great television, a throwback to the Cold War or a John le Carré novel, and it set up a must-watch event.
The race concluded in American glory, with King defeating the Russian. NBC showed some replays, and poolside reporter Michele Tafoya got some memorable words from King. The network then went to commercial—a common theme these Games—and as a viewer you expected either a return to the pool for some talk from the swimming analysts, or perhaps Bob Costas weighing in on a signature moment. Here is what you got instead: Ryan Seacrest pointing to a dude building a sandcastle on a beach. Viewers watched Seacrest explain that the sandcastle was going to be cool—very cool. Then NBC went to another commercial break.
It was at the moment I realized just how much I missed viewing the broadcaster of the host country and the in-arena world feeds during the Games. This is the first time since 2002 that I’m not covering the Olympics for Sports Illustrated, meaning I have watched the majority of the Olympics over the last 14 years through mediums other than NBC. It is jarring how different Olympic TV coverage is away from the States. This is not to take anything from NBC’s behind-the-scenes production people, many of whom are the best in the world at what they do and work 18-hour days. But the CBC, BBC and announcer-less in-arena feeds are a much better viewing experience. They present events mostly from beginning to end, eschew packaging the coverage with created narratives, and they do not have NBC’s obsession with Today-style segments and correspondents. Of course, most also air the Olympics live in all time zones of their country.
Now, and this is important: NBCUniversal is a for-profit business, so we are never getting BBC-style coverage here. (The BBC receives most of its funding from the British public through a license fee that is levied on TV-owning households.) NBCUniversal paid nearly $1.3 billion for the rights to show this Olympics, and they get the majority of their revenue from advertising. That is why they do primetime as they do and even with a ratings decline, they are still drawing 30 million Americans or so each night to watch their product. They have no incentive to change their primetime direction. They also have provided consumers multiple options during daytime and primetime, including excellent digital streaming.
After watching for the first seven days, here are some topline thoughts on NBC’s multiplatform coverage using a familiar rating system.
• Swimming broadcasting teams
Both NBC (Dan Hicks and Rowdy Gaines) and the world feed (John McBeth and Nicole Livingstone) announcers have been sensational. Both teams explain specifics to viewers (stroke technique, how to set up relays, how to attack prelim swims) while maintaining terrific excitement and passion for the races. Swimming and gymnastics have carried NBC’s primetime coverage early, and Hicks and Gaines have really done their network well. The production team, led by producer Tommy Roy, has also been on point—particularly excellent was the addition of a handheld camera in the ready room.
NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus said the reaction NBC received from viewers about the ready room shots was so positive that their digital team was able to get a permanent camera in there, which is streamed live during the swimming competition as a second screen add-on. “When you’re in the locker room right as competition is about to start, I think it’s exciting,” said Lazarus. “We’ve also seen a lot of really sort of fun athlete-to-athlete competition/game playing and playing head games with each other. In a voyeuristic society, when we can let people behind the curtain that way, I think it’s a very good and gets people excited.”
Agreed. Well done.
• The swimming production’s shots of Simone Manuel winning a share of gold in the 100 freestyle.
Manuel’s historic win—she is the first African-American to win a gold medal in an individual swimming event—was punctuated by multiple fantastic images and replays of her learning she had tied Penny Oleksiak for gold. That was followed by an emotional interview from Manuel conducted by Tafoya. My favorite race of the Games so far.
• NBC’s streaming options
As a general rule, NBC’s online coverage has been very strong, particularly the ability to toggle between multiple live events. Yes, it can get too commercials-heavy and I imagine many of you have experienced buffering (which may be on your own carrier), but NBC has given authenticated cable subscriptions the option to program your own viewing. There was a point on Wednesday afternoon where you had 26 live events to choose from—hard to ask for more. The streaming options also provided viewers with natural sound from the arena, which meant you could often hear coaches and the competitors during breaks. NBC said as of Wednesday its streaming for Rio had topped one billion minutes—the first time the threshold has ever been crossed for an Olympics.
• The gymnastics world feed
If you watched the women’s all-around final online on Thursday afternoon, you could toggle between each of the apparatuses or watch the main feed live. That’s just great access. Broadcasters Jim Watson, Jonathan Horton and Courtney Kupets Carter provided, in my opinion, much better commentary than the NBC crew. Listening to them, you felt like you were learning something about the sport, as opposed to being part of a made-for-TV soap opera.
• NBC Gold Zone
Using the NFL’s RedZone channel philosophy, this was a great way to stay abreast of multiple medal events happening at the same time.
Not surprisingly, viewers are getting solid performances from Marv Albert, Doug Collins and Ros Gold-Onwude on men’s basketball, particularly for the U.S.-Australia game. The U.S. win over Australia in men's basketball averaged 3.4 million viewers on NBCS Network—most-watched Olympics hoops game since 2008.
• Very cool move to mic the challenge official during Bravo’s field hockey coverage. Enhancements like really add to the viewing.
The channel has been a joy for hardcore Olympic fans who want to experience the Games the way we experience most sports—from start to finish. If you watched Thursday’s night men’s volleyball match between the U.S. and Brazil, you were treated to one of the best sporting event of the Games.
There are of course a ton of ancillary benefits to the Olympics for NBC. For example, NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt averaged eight million total viewers the first week of the Games, beating ABC World News Tonight by 258,000 viewers (+3%) and CBS Evening News by 1.721 million viewers (+28%). The Olympic halo impact on other shows probably doesn’t get enough coverage among sports media types. This is part of the reason NBC pays billions for the product.
• Linear viewership
Clearly, these Olympics are not going to surpass London (which I predicted incorrectly). After five nights, NBC had averaged a 15.6 rating (28.6 million viewers), down from a 19.5 rating (35.6 million viewers) during the 2012 Games. Per Sports Business Daily, the Rio Games were also down from a 17.8 rating (31.3 million viewers) during Beijing in ’08. The linear TV ratings story isn’t a great one for NBC, but it’s certainly far from a catastrophe. The network drew 33.4 million viewers last Tuesday for the women’s gymnastics team final and Michael Phelps winning his 20th and 21st gold medals. The network has been pushing a Total Audience Delivery statistic, which measures consumption by calculating average minute viewing across broadcast, cable and digital. Here’s a nice look by TV By The Numbers that explains NBC’s numbers. You can be the judge as to how you want to evaluate the metrics.
NBC has to make back its billion-dollar investment. But the frequency of the ad sports during these Games has been jarring. Countered Lazarus: “I know there was some stuff written about the opening ceremonies about how many commercials we had when in fact we had fewer than London. I do think that we try to pace it so that we can get the most content in and when we’re live, we obviously have to do it based on when there is action and when there’s not action. So we’re trying to be respectful of the viewer and take care of our obligations, both either in a delayed or a live environment. We certainly keep an eye on what we’re doing because we know it impacts viewership. I worry less about the social media people beating up on us. I wish they wouldn’t, but I worry less about that than what it does to our viewership and our relationship with our sponsors.”
• Gymnastics coverage
NBC’s gymnastics team—Al Trautwig, Tim Daggett and Nastia Liukin—rightfully faced criticism on Twitter for its adherence to narrative and soap opera over specifics, and I’d urge you to read this New Yorker piece by Reeves Wiedman because it perfectly encapsulates why NBC offers a soap opera rather than treating gymnastics viewers like adults. To be fair, the group on Thursday night was much better about explaining certain deductions, which is very helpful for viewer.
• News coverage
The underbelly of the Rio Games, from performance-enhancing drugs to crime and protests in Rio to the Indianapolis Star’s reporting on USA Gymnastics, has barely been touched on by NBC Sports, at least during primetime. As we said early on, if you are interested in Rio coverage away from the venues, you must go with non-rights-holders first. Here’s just one example.
• The opening ceremony
For fans of morning television and parades with floats, this program was for you. Objectively, the production came across as choppy given the number of commercials (numerous people on Twitter timed it at one spot every six minutes for the first 40 minutes). Inconceivably, for a program that clocked in at more than four hours, NBC edited out a speech from Kenyan running legend Kip Keino. They have had better productions.
• NBC’s Olympics packaging
One of the most frustrating things about NBC’s primetime coverage is the network’s adherence to narrative. There is no event outside of swimming that runs from beginning to end, which is jarring. Will people still watch? Of course. But too often you are watching an entertainment show, with some sports mixed in. It should get better with track and field next week.
• A shortage of foreign stars during primetime
Associated Press reporter David Bauder wrote that with American male gymnasts out of the running on Wednesday, NBC started its men’s All-Around gymnastics coverage at 11:37 p.m. The gold medal was decided at 12:19 a.m. Thursday. That’s a shame because Japan's Kohei Uchimura won the gold medal over Ukraine's Oleg Verniaiev by less than one-tenth of a point in a great competition.