Media Circus: NBC's post-Bob Costas plan; Olympic media roundtable

Monday February 17th, 2014
Bob Costas and Al Michaels have been an NBC Olympic coverage staples for years, but what happens when they decide to move on?
Bob Martin/Sports Illustrated/SI

What has been the most satisfying part (and why) of your assignment in Sochi?

Arthur: Just getting to write the best stories. One of the things about being a national guy at the Games is you get to be one of Canada's voices, and that's such an awesome privilege. It's one of the few times we all gather around the TV and watch, and care, as a nation, and to be able to give voice to that might be the best part of my job. When you add being able to write the Olympics themselves, and try to capture the complexity of this incredibly complex Games, politically speaking, it's the best. We may not get a more interesting Olympics for some time, I think.

Mickle: This is my fourth Olympics and the fourth time Sports Business Journal has run a dedicated Olympic website during the Games. I knew next to no one in the international sports community in Beijing. That's not the case any more. In Sochi, I'm seeing that years of working the Olympic beat has allowed me to develop relationships with the IOC, USOC, agents and other writers. That makes my job easier and the work I do better.

Stewart-Binks: Since the moment we got here, I have been overwhelmingly inspired by the magnitude of the Games. Watching the Opening Ceremonies was one of the most pure raw emotional feelings I've ever had in my life. I get verklempt even thinking about it. My first-ever dream and goal in life was to compete at the Olympics -- I wanted to win gold in figure skating at the Winter Olympics, and run and win gold in the 100 meters at the Summer Olympics. Watching Vladislav Tretiak run with the flame to the cauldron made me feel my life had come full circle. While I'm not here as an athlete, I am here as a reporter, which is not nearly as challenging, but it is an accomplishment on its own. Covering the Olympics is where I belong. Every day I'm inspired to get to the park and see what sort of history is about to be made. Being at the US-Russia hockey game last Saturday and seeing all the millions of tweets made me realize that at least for these two weeks, I'm at the center of the universe. It is overwhelmingly compelling knowing sport has such an awesome power to capture an entire world, but also to shape a nation's identity forever. I'm going to cry my eyes out when it's over.

Wyshynski: Well, it has to be my stint as a bathroom toilet reporter. One of my first days here, everyone was talking about their horror stories. Many of them were legit -- the people who entered hotel rooms only to find someone already there, or those who couldn't get out of their rooms because the door handle fell off. Some of them were a bit more whimsical, like the fact that my room had a shower curtain hanging on a towel rack but no shower rod on which to hang it.

So I spotted a sign in the bathroom at the Main Press Center that I thought fell into the whimsy category: a sign in the bathroom, translated from Russian, that said "PLEASE DO NOT FLUSH TOILET PAPER DOWN THE TOILET. PUT IT IN THE BIN PROVIDED." I took a photo of it and the "Poo Tin" next to the toilet, and tweeted it. It was retweeted 4,100 times. It ended up everywhere from the "Today Show" to CNN to "Conan" to "The Colbert Report." (All of which I'll place on my résumé as "his work has appeared on...")

Ugly American that I am, I didn't realize that throwing away soiled paper in the trash is something people do in places without modern plumbing -- as was pointed out by a thousand people on Twitter (or so it would seem). It was a surreal moment that taught me the draw of the Olympics, as well as the appetite for things that make the host city look like a backwater hell hole of incompetency.

What has been the most frustrating part (and why) of your assignment in Sochi?

Arthur: Not complaining, but the food. The food is grim. My secret at every Olympics is to stash chocolate bars and maybe an apple in my bag at all times, because you find yourself stranded places with food you will immediately regret, and sometimes none at all. They have these caramel-and-nut ones here, like Snickers. I might have eaten 20.

Mickle: The language barrier is tough. Even in Beijing I had more success finding people who spoke English. That just hasn't been the case for me in Sochi. Knowing what locals think about the Olympics is a big part of understanding of a Games, and that's tougher to report here. I got spoiled the last two Games in Vancouver and London.

Stewart-Binks: Limited access as a non-rights holder, without a doubt. It's frustrating to not be able to do even the smallest things you would have done had you had the rights. Like even taking a picture of [Canada's] Carey Price in the scrum. Also, not being able to see everything live. Pains me to say this but I haven't even seen Canada's men's hockey team play yet. While I'm here covering the Games, my main job is in the studio. I have a hard time sitting still. I love to play reporter and talk to athletes after practice so I can add more depth to the conversations I'm hosting. Also, walking around the park has proven to be the longest thing ever. A venue may look like its 500 yards away, but it's really a 40-minute walk.

Wyshynski: Sochi, at least the area we're in, lacks the personality of other cities I've worked in. There's no nightlife per se. Restaurant options are limited. I've spent more time at the wine bar in my hotel than anywhere in the area. (Which is OK, because the wine is cheap and the karaoke is multi-lingual.

Who has been the most interesting athlete you have interviewed in Sochi and why?

Arthur: Not one athlete, and not just an athlete. It was the Dufour-Lapointe sisters, Maxime, Chloé and Justine, and their parents, Yves and Johane. Justine won gold in the women's moguls, Chloé won silver, and Maxime, the eldest, finished 12th. And they spoke about their fierce love for and pride in one another, and it was like being at a wedding, but they also addressed the dynamics of how it works when you have three girls in the same sport, and they can't all win. Johane in particular talked about how, when the girls were growing up, she and Yves would withhold extravagant praise when one girl won, because the family balance was more important; she regretted it, a bit, because as a parent you want to give your children the praise they deserve, to show how proud you are of them. But they couldn't always do that. It was such an honest and beautiful window into a really great family.

Mickle: Torin Yater-Wallace for the simple reason that he's the only one I've interviewed. Oh, and a couple of days later, he had that great McDonald's tweet that Deadspin picked up. Unlike everybody else here, I don't talk to athletes. The interviews I've done are with everyone from Sochi 2014 CEO Dmitry Chernyshenko to IOC sports director Christophe Dubi to the president of McDonald's business in Russia. Probably the most interesting talks I've had were with NBC executives Mark Lazarus and Jim Bell.

Stewart-Binks: To be honest, it would have to be Michelle Kwan. She's obviously not competing at these Games, and she's working as an analyst for us at Fox Sports 1 (this is not a plug), but her stories from competing are mind-blowing. She's very honest and open about all the positive and negative experiences she's had with skating, her coaches, falling short of Olympic gold twice, pulling out of the Games in 2006, and growing up in the public eye. I am extremely surprised at how grounded she is. I sometimes forget she's the most decorated figure skater in America's history because it's so easy for us to talk. I can't imagine what it would be like to watch the Ladies free skate with her by my side.

Wyshynski: Amanda Kessel of the USA women's hockey team, who is the sister of Phil Kessel of the men's team and is primed to be the most entertaining player in the U.S. has ever had. She's personable, interesting and handles the unending questions about her brother with grace.

How do you view the Western press's coverage of Sochi during these Games? Fair, unfair, and why?

Arthur: I think in general, it's fair. The hotel stuff is funny, and it was indicative of how well the details of the Games were being handled, and frankly, the details matter. When you hold an Olympics, you invite the world to come over and judge how well you've vacuumed the carpet and arranged the flowers, you know? I'd actually argue that most of the Western media has left the truly contentious issues alone: the corruption issues, the LGBT issue, the repression of Russia's lone independent TV station, all of that. There's a lack of weighing what the Games really mean, and instead a focus on whether you got a shower curtain yet. Which is, in fairness, totally understandable. But I could probably argue that the Western media could have been stronger on the bigger picture of these Olympics.

Mickle: This is complicated to answer. The first week was dominated by hotel coverage, and a lot of people -- not just journalists, but sponsors and international spectators -- had bad experiences. Those reports were accurate. The problem was there was so much of it. When the volume of complaining gets cranked up like it did, it comes off collectively as unfair.

Stewart-Binks: I think the Western press was overly negative about the Sochi accommodations, food, stray dog situation etc. I know people had problems, but for the most part 99.9 percent of the people I've talked to haven't had an issue.

Wyshynski: Unfair, if only because the coverage to start the games was so negative and damning, and there's been literally nothing on the fact that the organizers and hotels and the city in general got their stuff together within a week of the opening. As has been said by many Russians I've met: They're a people that do things at the last minute.

What is the one event at the Games you are most looking forward to covering and why?

Arthur: The men's hockey gold medal final, whoever is in it. I was at the last one, and it was, uh, memorable. And besides, it could be the last one for quite some time.

Mickle: The most interesting events I've attended at previous Olympics have been the ones that mean something to the host country. The atmosphere for those events is charged, and the local culture comes through a bit. I'll never forget the USA-China basketball game in Beijing. LeBron and Co blew out the Chinese but everything from the cheerleaders (they danced with basketballs) to seeing Chinese fans cheering on the NBA players was fascinating.

Stewart-Binks: Without a doubt, the gold medal Olympic hockey game. I'm such a diehard hockey nut that this is the bread and butter of my games. I hang around practice on my days off. I can't get enough of the smell of the rink. I can't imagine what life would have been like for Canada if Sidney Crosby hadn't scored the Golden Goal in 2010. But, the best part about covering the Olympics is that even before the Games begin, you know things will happen that make history, and change lives. The Olympics is a beast -- so fantastic and so unforgiving.

Wyshynski: The gold medal hockey game, and the T.J. Oshie shootout goal that wins it.

2. Based on social media sentiment, Lipinski and Weir have been praised more than any other NBC on-air talents during the Sochi Games. Since I'm on-site watching Russian state television as opposed to NBC state television, I asked former SI television editor Dick Friedman for his take. A lifetime figure-skating follower, Friedman is now at SI's sister publication Golf Magazine. He is the author of the forthcoming Crimson Autumns: When Harvard Football Was Number One:

"If you've been waiting until primetime to watch Olympic figure skating, you've been missing the Games's second-best pairing next to Russia's gold medalists Volosozhar and Trankov. I'm speaking of Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir, who of course are not on the ice but have been the analysts for the live coverage on NBC Sports Network. In the 1960s, the immortal Dick Button pioneered TV skating commentary, imprinting the now-lampooned tropes ("5.3...that's the Russian judge"). Tara and Johnny have brought the art form into the 21st century.

Both import to the booth considerable rink chops, Tara as the gold medalist (at age 15) at Nagano in 1998, Johnny as a three-time U.S. national champion. Johnny also brings his colorful fashion choices. (Look up "flamboyant" in the dictionary; you'll see a picture of one of Johnny's jackets.) As with all the great TV commentators, they not only impart and explicate what is happening: "That's a major bobble"..."This lift I found gorgeous"..."I love his posture." But they also are usually a little ahead of the play, letting you know how crucial this next quadruple toe-loop will be. They are enthusiastic without getting overheated (hello, Scott Hamilton.) "They sold that program as if the rent were due tomorrow!" said Weir today about the short program of U.S. ice dancers Madison Chock and Evan Bates.

Best of all, they eschew the snark and are chatty without being catty. I suspect that what they are saying is close to what they are really thinking. They have the cool chemistry of an old married couple. Each has the vocal pacing and cadence of a broadcasting pro. (Tara...who knew?) A tip of the blade here to their conductor, Terry Gannon, whose genial, low-key manner complements them ideally.

As others have pointed out, in some ways this trio has it easier than the primetime crew of Hamilton, Sandra Bezic and Tom Hammond, who must jam their thoughts into perhaps a half-dozen performances. Over several hours, Tara, Johnny and Terry can really stretch it out. If you can, take a morning off this week and give a listen. I promise it will be golden."

2a. The interview NBC alpine reporter Christin Cooper conducted with Bode Miller after his Super-G race drew a firestorm on Twitter Sunday night, with many accusing the reporter of pushing Miller too far with questions about his late younger brother, Chelone "Chilly" Miller, a snowboarder who died last year at the age of 29. The transcript and video of Cooper's interview is here.

Miller himself did not have an issue with the line of questioning. On Sunday night he tweeted out the following:

"I appreciate everyone sticking up for me. Please be gentle w christin cooper, it was crazy emotional and not all her fault. #heatofthemoment. My emotions were very raw, she asked the questions that every interviewer would have, pushing is part of it, she wasnt trying to cause pain."

My colleague Tim Layden has covered Miller for 12 years, with plenty of highs and lows. He told me on Monday that it is not Miller's nature to talk openly about his emotions. "Even when he does talk about his emotions, he tends to do so, unemotionally, if that makes sense," Layden said.

Last week Miller did eight fairly extensive interviews with US journalists in the media ``mixed zone'' at the bottom of the alpine race hill. Those are journalists he has known for years. Layden said he did not bring up Chilly's name once. (His brother's name was Chelone; everybody called him Chilly). He did mention Chilly once, briefly, in the press conference after the Super-G.

There's no question Miller's brother was part of the narrative NBC was trying to push in the post-race interview, but the question is how far should they have pushed. I tend to give reporters a lot of latitude in questioning because reporting is not easy as a general rule, and there is no perfect roadmap for how to conduct an interview when an athlete's emotions are still raw. Add to that the rocket fuel of live or taped television. Miller also has a relationship with Cooper and clearly did not harbor animus toward NBC because I saw him coming into its Sochi studios for an interview hours after his race. If you want to place blame on someone for going too far here for a storyline -- if there is even blame to place -- choose the producers. They opted to run a non-live interview for maximum impact. Given how Miller felt about it, I would have run the interview too, even though I agree that Cooper went for the big splash with her final question, and probably pushed Miller into an emotional place one too many times. But also give Cooper credit for her humanity as she immediately recognized the situation, and apologized.

On Monday morning, an NBC spokesperson responded to an inquiry from SI.com:

"Our intent was to convey the emotion that Bode Miller was feeling after winning his bronze medal. We understand how some viewers thought the line of questioning went too far, but it was our judgment that his answers were a necessary part of the story. We're gratified that Bode has been publicly supportive of Christin Cooper and the overall interview."

2b. On the Today show on Monday morning, Miller addressed the interview: "I've known Christin a long time and she is a sweetheart of a person. I know she didn't mean to push. I don't think she really anticipated what my reaction was going to be and I think by the time she sort of realized it, I think it was too late and I don't really, I don't blame her at all. I feel terrible that she is taking the heat for that because it really is just a heat of the moment kind of circumstance, and I don't think there was any harm intended. So, it was just a lot of emotion for me, it's been a lot over the last year and that you sometimes don't realize how much you contain that stuff until the dam breaks and then it's just a real outpouring."

2c. Here's a take on the Cooper interview from Richard Sandomir of the New York Times.

2d. Cathal Kelly of Toronto Star has the opposite reaction, writing "at no point does she hector Bode Miller. At no point does he definitively dissuade her from her line of questioning."

2e. Through Thursday, 150.9 million Americans had watched the 2014 Sochi Olympics on NBCUniversal's networks.

2f. NBC Sports said it drew nearly 600,000 unique users (598,552) on NBCOlympics.com for the U.S.-Russia game.

2g. Nice hustle by Jon Saraceno of Thrive Sports to track down Costas for this piece.

3. Sports Business Daily media reporter John Ourand on how CBS won Thursday Night Football.

3a. Re-watching the Jay Glazer-Richie Incognito interview is an interesting experience today.

3b. The New York Times reported that Steve Bornstein, the departing head of the NFL Network, made $26.1 million in 2013. Thus, I can now say someone making $26.1 million twice turned me down for an interview.

3c. Bloomberg's Scott Soshnick on the marketing potential of Michael Sam.

4. The Sports Media Watch has a post on the television ratings for the NBA at the midseason point.

4a. Fox Sports Live anchors Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole asked some Russians to try out for the show -- a very funny video. Also, great to see Fox Sports 1 include brunettes for a tryout.

4b. Fox Sports 1 has a terrific Champions League Round of 16 games Tuesday with Manchester City-Barcelona (2:00 p.m.). The following day, Fox Sports 2 airs Arsenal-Bayern Munich at 2:00 p.m. ET.

5. This week's sports pieces of note:

•SI's Michael Farber on the legend of T.J. Oshie (or T.J. Sochi).

•Via the Wall Street Journal: The complex legacy of Miracle on Ice game for Russian fans:

•Highly recommend this Grantland episodic video series with Steve Nash. The series is directed by Hock Films, who always do great work.

•SI's Lee Jenkins wrote a sensational profile of Roy Hibbert.

•ESPN The Magazine's Seth Wickersham spent the season following Hall of Fame-to be tight end Tony Gonzalez.

•National Post's (Canada) Bruce Arthur on an athlete's sacrifice for country.

•New York Times reporter Sarah Lyall on how tough it is for Olympic alpine skiers to find pants that fit. Loved this piece.

•Beautiful photo essay by Lily Idov on the Moscow 1980 Olympic sites today.

•ESPN NFL analyst Mark Schlereth -- and former NFL offensive lineman -- wrote a terrific piece on the culture of NFL locker rooms.

Non-sports pieces of note:

• Via Washington Post columnist Max Fisher: The powerful stories behind the six best news photos of 2013.

•This Marina Hyde piece in The Guardian on Kristen Stewart is all kinds of greatness.

•The New Republic's Alec MacGillis had a devastating profile of Chris Christie.

•Should we reevaluate the presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson?

•This is only the greatest photo ever.

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