Mark Lazarus is unapologetic about NBC’s presentation of the Rio Games. This is not surprising given his title:
Chairman of the NBC Sports Group.
“I’m obviously biased but I believe once again we have created a masterful production job, from the quality of production, the quality of storytelling, our preparedness for whatever stories developed as evidenced by what people are seeing on all of their screens,” says Lazarus.
“Everyone is talking about these Olympics versus London. London was an A+ and Rio is an A. It’s been really good for us, and as media habits as evolved, we have evolved and are leading with some of the ways we are structuring our programming.”
Speaking to Sports Illustrated on Sunday afternoon from his office at the International Broadcasting Center in Rio, Lazarus addressed many of the questions viewers have had for NBC. He has done the same with me at multiple Olympics at the halfway point. You might not like his answers—in fact, I am sure many of you will not—but he is accountable to those who write about his company and that gets great respect here.
Over the course of our 30-minute conversation, I tried to ask him about many of your concerns, particularly the ones you sent my way on social media. I’ve also added some of his answers from a conference call last week and I’ll note those. Below, here’s Lazarus on a variety of NBC-related topics:
With all of the channels you have at your disposal, why not give viewers on every coast the option of watching events live on some sort of linear live channel?
We have talked about it and in some cases we have done it. We are doing it with the men’s and women’s basketball finals—we will go live across the country. But our belief is that to make the programming available when most people are available, which is primetime in their time zone. By streaming events we take care of the passionate fan who wants to see it as it happening. What is bearing out for us, is our two highest-rated time zones are the Mountain and Western time zones. Those people are the ones who are delayed and they are over-indexing the national (viewership) average when it comes to ratings.
As a follow-up: Even with the data you cited above, one could argue that the majority of the complaints also come from the West Coast. What would you say to those West Coast viewers who are frustrated about having to wait for primetime to begin at 7 or 8 p.m. PT?
We read and gather information from social media and journalists who write stories and of course we listen and evaluate. We will do that again after these Games as we do for every Games. What I would say is while it is not necessarily our television feed, we are making the events available live (via streaming) to everyone. That gives people who want to see it live the opportunity. Remember, that was new in London. That had never been done before. We have continued to make more product available to more people in more ways. I do feel we are making it available to those who want it. In a way it is flattering. People are saying, “having the events on digitally isn’t good enough. I really want to see NBC’s coverage.” We appreciate that. While we love all of the consumption across our platforms, broadcast television is still the most powerful engine for this and we still believe and the data supports doing it the way we are doing it. It is the best way to aggregate the biggest audience.
On whether he would reconsider opening up the opening ceremony to be streamed live when it starts with no delays?
Frankly, I haven’t thought about it yet. I do stand behind the fact that it is very difficult to understand any context if you are just streaming it [the opening ceremony] without any sort of narration as to what is going on, especially when a country is talking about its history and culture.
On both the narrative and reality that the viewership for the Rio Games are disappointing in relation to London?
We have thought a lot about this so I have some facts around my answer as well as an anecdote. Usain Bolt is running for the 100 title on Sunday night. He ran faster in London than he did in Beijing, but he won gold at both. I feel the same way. We are winning gold in Rio. Come Monday night we will have had 50 straight nights of Olympic coverage that have won primetime. It goes back to the middle of the Vancouver Games. The Olympics are a powerful engine. When you think about it in relation to the other programming that is on, there are only two non-sports TV programs last season that averaged half the audience that the Olympics does—“NCIS” and “The Big Bang Theory.” Nothing else averages half this audience. So, yes, the primetime ratings are off and when you take our Total Audience Delivery, it is still a little bit behind London’s overall delivery. But more people are consuming these Games than any before. So we feel very confident in our success here, and the fact that we have these Games for a long time. We have all of the rights to be able to exploit this hugely powerful event across every platform known today or invented tomorrow.
(Lazarus gave this answer in a conference call last week regarding complaints about not showing enough live sports.)
As for showing more live sports, we should reiterate to you and to your readers, we stream every event live. Every single thing that takes place in Rio de Janeiro inside a competition venue is available live. That’s first. Second, if you go to last night’s [Wednesday’s] show, from 8–11, we were live for beach volleyball and swimming. And then we had tape delayed piece of gymnastics that took place earlier in the day that we put on after 11. There are only so many things you can put on. Simultaneously, on NBC Sports Network, there was the back end of a USA men’s basketball game and some ping-pong and a fairly significant soccer game between Brazil and Denmark. We program a lot of live content. There’s only so many hours in the day, so some of it has to be packaged. And things like gymnastics are very difficult and sluggish to show live. We make it available live through our streaming products, but we think having it put on in a way that makes more sense to a broad viewing audience, not to the gymnastics aficionado who really know the sport. But, again, we’re pulling 20 some-odd rating points for gymnastics. Those aren’t people who watch gymnastics every week or are fully knowledgeable in the sport. So part of our job is to try to help inform them and make the sport bigger.
On whether he expects NBC to use the same approach and formula in South Korea and Japan for the 2018 and 2020 Olympics?
We always take a step back after the Games and look at how we are going to evolve our coverage to continue to reach the highest audience, and frankly to pay off our advertising partners and give them a chance to reach our audience. It is working well here and we will do the same thing for Pyeongchang and Tokyo. We know the time difference is plus-14 hours to Pyeongchang but what we don’t know is the athletic schedule yet—what events are playing when. That will have a bearing on what we do in primetime. That schedule will come out about a year out from the Games. The women’s downhill, for example, could run at noon over there and that would be in primetime live here. The time zone is an interesting one. Figure skating is a big piece of our winter planning and we are hopeful that they will have an afternoon program that will serve us live in primetime.
On his head of marketing, John Miller, characterizing prior to the Games that women Olympics viewers were perhaps “less interested in the result” and more interested in narrative and journey leading up to that result?
Listen, John Miller is a brilliant marketer and thoughtful man and he was not intending to make comments about women’s viewing habits. I think his belief and what he has learned over his four decades as a marketer is that the Olympics are a competition but also about the stories that go with that competition because most of these athletes are little known to the American public and many of them won’t be in the public eye ever again. What we do know so far is 55% of our audience is female, which tells you this is not like a traditional sporting event. It is about storyline as well as competition. We never would want any group of people, and women in this case specifically, to feel that we don’t respect that they are interested in the outcome. They of course are. But I think all Olympic fans—men, women and children—like to learn a little about these athletes and stories and the journey these mostly young people have taken to get to the pinnacle of their sport.
One of the things NBC has been good about is having female broadcasters as on-air analysts, hosts and reporters. But Andrea Joyce is the only female play-by-play announcer for NBC Sports during these Games. Should NBC in the future look to add more women as play by play announcers?
Sure, if we can find folks who fit that build, we are happy to include them. We will continue to look. We have 170 talents for the Games and we are always looking for new, interesting talent.
On a sport that has popped that he did not expect?
I have really enjoyed watching the women’s field hockey coverage. It’s a lot faster and more skill than people realize and maybe I say that because I was an ice hockey player. But I have enjoyed watching the U.S. women’s team. The sport is fast. I don’t remember watching it when I was young and this has been pretty interesting.
On one thing that Rio away from his job that has been memorable?
My daughter is here working as an intern and the fact that I get a chance to see her every day—sometimes for 30 seconds, sometimes for 20 minutes—has made it a personally memorable games. She is working as a runner in swimming and now she is doing water polo.
(Lazarus gave this answer in earlier conference call on criticism for some commentary that some viewers viewed as sexist.)
Of course we’re sensitive if people feel like we’re not being proper to certain groups. I think, in most of those cases, we’ve addressed it very quickly with the talent themselves. In one case in particular, we did discuss with the talent that we thought his comments, which were placed on Twitter, not on air, were insensitive, and he addressed it. But we, of course, want to make sure that we are inclusive and open to all groups.
On feedback he has received from his staff of 2,000 in Rio regarding working conditions, safety, etc.?
In terms of working conditions, there has not been any specific complaints. The biggest issue we had in the first week which has now seemingly subsided was the traffic patterns. They would shift regularly and without warning. So getting from place to place, you just had to pack your patience and be ready to accept that you needed enough time to get where you needed to be. As far as safety concerns, we have had no safety issues or concerns. One thing I would say is 10 days ago there was a very high tide and a big moon and our beach set started getting sprayed with water because it built it on the beach. That has subsided. If you think about all the things we were faced with coming in here, with people talking about health, people talking about safety and security, people talking about the readiness of Rio, I think the things we are dealing with now are minor in comparison.
On anything he would change about how NBC presented gymnastics, and specifically a lack of foreign gymnasts being shown?
I don’t think so. We have shown all the relevant performers whether the U.S. or the Russians or the Brazilians. We are building our production for an American audience. Now America is made up of wide swaths of different nationalities but that is also why you can go online and stream any apparatus at any time and follow your own nation. If you happen to be in one of the Comcast X1 households, you can even get your schedule by when your nation will be performing.
On how interested he would be in adding Michael Phelps as an Olympic analyst for Tokyo?
Of course we would love to talk to Michael Phelps. But let me put the big caveat on that: The guy who has been doing it the best for the longest is still our guy and that is Rowdy Gaines. I’m not looking for you to write that we are looking to replace Rowdy Gaines because we are not. Rowdy’s knowledge is pure and his enthusiasm is infectious. He leaps through the TV screen and grabs you.
The Noise Report
SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories
1. Some thoughts on NBC’s Olympic coverage at the halfway point of the Games.
1a. Impressed by the yellow World Record line during swimming races? We did a piece on how it came to land on NBC’s Olympics coverage.
1b. Credit NBC swimming producer Tommy Roy and his staff for adding the bug at the bottom of the screen after the Games started that lets swimming viewers know what race they were watching. It was extremely helpful. “We are always thinking of ways to improve our presentation,” said Roy. “We recognize that some fans join events in progress and don’t always see our graphic at the top of event. Bottom line: we thought this would help the Olympic viewing experience.”
1c. This piece by longtime Associated Press Olympics writer Tim Dahlberg gives you an interesting contrast on what is going on in Rio versus what you see on NBC’s channels.
1d. Through nine nights, NBC had averaged 27.9 million viewers a night for the NBC-only viewership, down almost 15% from the London Olympics.
1e. NBC-only Saturday night coverage of the Games averaged 25.5 million viewers and peaked at 32.7 million for Michael Phelps’s final race.
2. Here’s a column I wrote last week on the death of ESPN’s John Saunders, a good man taken far too soon at 61.
2a. I asked ESPN’s Adnan Virk, who Saunders helped mentor at ESPN, to pass along some thoughts on what Saunders meant to him. His words are below.
John Saunders wasn’t only a giant of broadcasting but he carried a giant spirit with him. His professionalism, grace and presence will be sorely missed by those of us who loved watching him on ESPN but it’s his warm generosity and kindness that will be hardest for us to replace at ESPN.
He had a soft spot for me personally since not only am I also a proud Canadian, born in Toronto, but also graduated from the same school, Ryerson University. In true Canadian parlance, that’s a hat trick.
John offered me countless bits of advice about the business and the culture of ESPN and how to navigate it all. He was indispensable to me. He was of an age where I could respect and admire him but he was also imbued with a healthy, rebellious spirit which I also hope to retain no matter what age I am.
I drove him home at two in the morning after a party at this year’s NBA All-Star festivities in Toronto. Neither of us were working but felt compelled to be in our hometown to be gracious hosts to our ESPN brethren.
John had a Canadian tattoo and was fiercely proud of our shared roots, still owning a home in an area of our hometown called The Beaches. We drove for 45 minutes and John, marvelous raconteur that he was, shared anecdotes about how our city had changed and amusing tales about the broadcasters of our youth.
As he let himself out of my car, he said he’d invite me in next time when it wasn’t the wee hours of the morning. I’m saddened we won’t have that chance now.
The background to his Twitter has a picture of a Canadian flag with the inscription “I’m sorry for being awesome.” No apologies necessary for one of the finest to ever appear on ESPN airwaves and a person I’m so proud to have called a friend.
2b. A classy tribute by Mitch Albom to his longtime ESPN colleague.
2c. The final moment of Sunday’s “The Sports Reporters.”
3. Episode 70 of the “Sports Illustrated Media Podcast” features Lisa Fenn, a former ESPN producer and the author of “Carry On: A Story of Resilience, Redemption, and an Unlikely Family.”
In this episode, Fenn explains the story the remarkable friendship between former Cleveland high school wrestlers Dartanyon Crockett and Leroy Sutton. Crockett, who is legally blind, earned a Judo medal at the 2012 Paralympics in London, and now lives and studies in Colorado Springs, Colo., where he trains with USA Judo. Sutton, who lost his legs at age 11 when he was hit by a train, works in Game Production for EA Sports in Baton Rouge. The two high school friends were originally profiled by ESPN in 2009, and in that piece, ESPN reporter Tom Rinaldi described Crockett and Sutton as “a wrestler who couldn’t walk carried to matches by a wrestler who couldn’t see.”
The updated story in 2013 featured ESPN coordinating producer Jose Morales reintroducing the main characters and the extraordinary events that took place since the original piece aired including Fenn, who produced the original ESPN piece before leaving the company to raise a family and become an integral part of the lives of Crockett and Sutton. The unlikely trio formed a remarkable family unit. The 2013 feature on the three is the best piece ESPN has ever run, in my opinion. During our conversation, Fenn updates how the lives of Crockett and Sutton are proceeding. Crockett will be competing in the Paralympics in Rio.
A reminder: you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher, and you can view all of SI’s podcasts here. If you have any feedback, questions or suggestions, please comment here or tweet at me.
4. Sports pieces of note:
• The best piece I’ve read from Rio: SI’s Tim Layden, on a remarkable night at the track.
• Via Rebecca Ruiz of the NYT: A secret Soviet doping plan from 1983 reverberates in Rio.
• From Jason Gay of the Wall Street Journal: Mara Abbot’s beautiful ride.
• For the MMQB: A harrowing first-person story by Jaguars safety Earl Wolff.
• SI’s Michael Rosenberg on a CBC’s announcer Olympic gaffe.
• Via The Washington Post: The complicated Olympic history of Puerto Rico.
• From columnist Jerry Brewer: I’m black and I can’t swim. Simone Manuel showed America why it must change.
• Via The NYT: Athletes who were denied their Olympic medal moments because others were doping.
• Via The Washington Post: U.S. athletes run fast, jump high, throw hard—why are we so bad at handball?
• From Vice Sports: The rise and fall of Gerd Bonk, world champion of doping.
• Via The Economist: Why Pacific island nations are so good at rugby.
Non-sports pieces of note:
• From The New York Times Magazine: How the Arab World came apart.
• Slate’s Franklin Foer on whether Brazil can be saved.
• Via NYT: Inside the failing mission to save Donald Trump from himself.
• From the WSJ (subscription required): The 10,000 kidnapped boys of Boko Haram.
5. The second season of Joe Buck’s talk show—“Undeniable with Joe Buck”—airs on the AT&T Audience Network for DIRECTV and AT&T U-verse customers. Here’s the lineup of guests.
5a. Fox Sports announced that Redskins All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman will work as an on-air contributor for the 2016 season. He will split appearances between “Fox NFL Kickoff” (11 AM ET) and “Fox NFL Sunday” (12 PM ET) as well as do pre-packaged features shot during the practice week. He will also serve as an analyst in the Los Angeles studio on Nov. 6, during Washington’s Week 9 bye.
5b. Disney purchased a 33% stake in BAM Tech for $1 billion, with the deal, as Sports Business Daily reports, designed to jumpstart the MLBAM spinoff serving third-party entities and pave the way for a variety of new Disney digital offerings. Some pieces on ESPN plans include:
5c. The debut episode of the DiploSport podcast featured a discussion with Condoleezza Rice on the interplay between sports and government and the importance of athletics and culture in her own personal formation.
5d. ESPN will air a 28-Hour Fantasy Football marathon on Aug. 15 and 16.
5e. The YES Network had a 1 hour and 26 minute postgame for Alex Rodriguez’s final game as a Yankee.
5f. ESPN.com has launched a new vertical dedicated to the WWE and the world of professional wrestling.
5g. The mainstream Big Lead website held a college football media draft.
5h. Four University of Texas journalism students traveled to Rio to report on the 2016 Olympics.
5i. Sports Business Daily media reporter John Ourand reported that the Olympics highlights deal NBC struck with ESPN lasted just two days. Wrote Ourand: “Sources on both sides say their deal broke down over advertising restrictions around the Olympic programming that ESPN saw as too onerous. As part of the deal, NBC told ESPN that it was not allowed to sell advertising on ESPN.com specifically tied to Olympic highlight videos. Two days into the deal, NBC clarified that ESPN could not have advertising anywhere on a webpage that featured Olympic video—terms that ESPN felt would have put its existing ad commitments in jeopardy.”
5j. Peter Finney, the longtime New Orleans Times-Picayune sports writer, passed away Saturday morning at 88. He chronicled New Orleans sports for 68 years. Here’s NOLA.com’s Jeff Duncan with a tribute.
5k. Kate Scott, who works as a morning sports anchor at San Francisco-based sports-talk station KNBR Radio, is an anomaly in sports broadcasting: She is a women who has been given play-by-play assignments for men’s sports. Her first foray calling games was doing high school football in 2011 for the Bay Area-based Comcast Hometown Network including perennially national-ranked De La Salle high school. She has since called women’s soccer, volleyball, basketball and softball for the Pac-12 Network as well as a West Coast Conference men’s basketball game on Comcast Sportsnet Bay Area last February.
Now comes her most-high profile assignment to date: Scott called the Niners preseason game against the Texans on Sunday and will also fill in next week when the Niners play the Broncos. She is the third woman to do NFL play-by-play. Gayle Sierens called the Dec. 27, 1987 game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Kansas City Chiefs—the only woman to call a regular season NFL game. ESPN’s Beth Mowins did two Raiders’ preseason games on TV last season and will do the same this season.
Last week Scott and I exchanged emails on how this assignment came about:
SI.com: As specific as you can: How did this assignment come about?
Scott: Back in April, my program director at KNBR—Lee Hammer—called me into his office and said the 49ers had a question for me. He then got them on speaker phone and Bob Sargent—the team’s longtime director of broadcast partnerships—told me that the organization enjoys my work and that because of Ted Robinson’s Rio responsibilities, there was an opening on the radio side the first two weeks of the preseason, and that they wanted to offer me the opportunity to fill-in. I told them I was overwhelmed and incredibly flattered by the offer and asked if I could have a few days to think about it.
When my wife got home from work that night, I said, “Soooo ... Hammer called me into his office today, got the 49ers on the phone, and they offered me the chance to call their first two preseason games because Ted’s in Rio,” to which she replied, “Holy s---.” To which I replied, “Yeah, holy s---.” She then asked, “Sooo ... what do you think?” I told her I was scared to death, but wanted to say yes. So I called Hammer and, told him I’d given it some thought and told him I was in. And then I got to work.
SI.com: How have you prepared for the assignment?
Scott: Intensely. Very intensely. I’ll go back to the week after I accepted the assignment. I reached out to both Ted (the Niners preseason television play-by-play announcer and regular season radio play by play announcer) and Bob Fitzgerald (who usually does radio while Ted does TV in the preseason, but is doing TV while Ted’s away) and asked them to lunch so that I could pick their brains about their prep, get a look at their boards and also beg them for advice. They were both wonderfully helpful and Ted recommended I get my hands on Pat Kirwan’s book, “Take Your Eye Off The Ball 2.0,” so I ordered it as soon as I got home from our lunch and read it cover to cover in May and June. During that time, I also started attending OTAs and minicamp practices in Santa Clara and created 3x5 index cards for memorization purposes for every player on the Niners 90-man roster. Number on one side, name, age, height, weight, draft position, hometown, college, years of NFL experience, previous teams played for, position(s) and a few interesting notes on them on the other.
I asked our broadcast producer, Mike Hohler, to locate some old preseason broadcasts for me since preseason broadcasts are so much different than the regular season ones we had saved in the KNBR archives. He did, I dubbed them into mp3 form, loaded them onto my phone, and have been listening to them every few days.
I’ve also been listening to radio calls on YouTube, especially Kevin Harlan’s call of the Pats/Seahawks Super Bowl from a few years back. Chip Kelly’s offense moves so fast, like the offenses did in the second half of that game, so I’ve found it helpful to watch the game while listening to Kevin’s call to work on my pacing, figure out what he focuses on, what he leaves out, what words he emphasizes, etc.
In the past month, I’ve been down to Santa Clara for practice as often as possible, spent an hour or two each day reading everything I can find about the 49ers (all the different beat writers here in the Bay Area, blogs, players features from hometown papers, etc.), starting “calling” games I’ve pulled up on YouTube and muted, and also begun to create the boards I’ll use on game day.
I texted Beth to let her know about the assignment and ask if she might have any advice. I wasn’t sure about texting her, because we’d met for the first time at the Super Bowl in February and I have no idea what she thinks of me. She called me the next day, gave me some fantastic advice, and proved yet again why I’m flabbergasted to even know her.
And this past Tuesday, my analysts—Keena Turner, Dennis Brown—and I went into a studio at Levi’s Stadium with some preseason game tape from last year for a run-through. Since we’ve never worked together, we wanted to get a feel for each others pacing and likes/dislikes in the booth.
SI.com: Other women have called NFL games and Beth Mowins most recently did the Raiders last August. But the number is very low, as you know. How much do you think of this assignment as a pioneering one?
Scott: I’m well aware that others feel it is. I wouldn’t be talking to you right now if it wasn’t, but to be completely honest, to me, it simply feels like another—albeit big— opportunity to get to where I want to go in my career. After not being hired by ESPN like I thought I would straight out of college (spoiler alert, up-and-comers, that only happens to an extremely select few) I’ve tried to strip each opportunity I’ve been given down to the following:
1) Will this help to make me a better broadcaster?
2) Does this require a skill(s) I need to learn/improve/refresh?
3) Can I make it work with my schedule?
4) Will it help me accomplish my end goal?
5) Do I want to do it?
Obviously, in this case the answer to all of those questions was “yes,” so here we are. I guess I’m not as focused on the whole pioneering aspect because I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the actual pioneers: Beth Mowins, who you mentioned, who’s doing preseason TV again this year for the Raiders here in the Bay Area. Gayle Sierens. Pam Ward. Lesley Visser. Christine Brennan. Amy Trask. I’m sure I’m forgetting someone, but to me those are the pioneers for women in football, because without them, this opportunity doesn’t exist.