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Media Circus: Bob Costas on his future as NBC’s host of the Olympics

In this week’s Media Circus, 64-year-old Bob Costas talks about his future as NBC’s primetime host of the Olympic Games.

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When Matt Lauer sat behind the desk for NBC’s primetime coverage of Day Four of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, he ended one of the most remarkable streaks on network television. For 157 consecutive primetime broadcasts over 22 years, Bob Costas had been the primetime host of the Olympic Games for the U.S. network rights-holder. That streak ended when Costas had to miss six days because of a rapidly-spreading eye infection, an ailment that troubled him for months afterward.

Think about this: Since 1976, there have only been nine people in America who have hosted the primetime coverage of the Olympic games: Costas, Jim McKay, Bryant Gumbel, Paula Zahn, Tim McCarver, Greg Gumbel, Jim Nantz, Lauer and Meredith Vieira. That’s it—and most of the names on the list were hosts for one Olympic cycle only.

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While the primetime host is on the air for a short amount of time—sometimes under 10 minutes over a four-hour shift—the role serves as the broadcast face of NBC’s most important global sports property. That’s why it’s fascinating to think about who will sit in the chair after Rio. Costas has given NBC three decades of professionalism and intelligence in the position—even football-hosting detractors would likely agree—but he is 64 years old and succession must ultimately take place.

How soon will that happen? In an interview with SI.com on Sunday, Costas said he is treating each Olympics after Rio on a “case-by-case basis.” He does not have a number in mind regarding how many more Games he wants to be a part of, but his bosses started thinking about the post-Costas future after Sochi. “We said after Sochi we would start to think about what life after Bob might be, whether post-Rio, post-PyeongChang, post-Tokyo, whenever he does not want to do it anymore,” NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus told SI.com in February 2014 during an interview inside NBC’s onsite Olympic compound.. “It is a big time commitment for a host. It is tons of research, tons of preparation and a ton of time away from your family. Certainly, we would be foolish not to be thinking about what a succession might look like.”

On Sunday, Costas said he appreciated Lazarus framing it how he did. “I’ll decide [to step aside] or we will decide mutually when the time has come to step aside,” Costas said. “And that time will be before my ability to do it has diminished.”

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If you want to read the tea leaves, none of the future Olympics (PyeongChang in 2018, Tokyo in 2020 and Beijing in 2022) offer the exotic draw of traveling to a place Costas has yet to visit. The first Olympics Costas worked was in Seoul in 1988, where he was a late-night host. He has been to Beijing multiple times, including serving as the primetime host in 2008. He has traveled to Japan for baseball multiple times and covered the World Track and Field Championships in Tokyo in 1991, which featured  Mike Powell and Carl Lewis recording the No. 1 and No. 3 best wind-legal jumps in history. (Powell broke Bob Beamon's almost 23-year-old long jump world record at the event and the record still stands). “It will not be among the factors,” Costas said of future Olympic sites.

NBC could offer Costas an Olympic emeritus role, as ABC did for McKay. Costas said he would listen to any scenarios, “but I think there is a mutual understanding that ultimately the decision will be mine and we’ll see. I will respectfully listen to any suggestion.”

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I asked Costas if he thought he should be part of the decision to see who follows in his chair. Obviously, there will be massive speculation regarding Mike Tirico (who will soon be formally announced as an NBC Sports staffer) taking over that role in the future. “It’s not my decision,” Costas said. “If they ask for input, I would give my input. But it’s absolutely not my decision to make or even to have much influence on.”

Costas said he would give NBC a decision sooner rather than later after Rio. “I would never leave them in the lurch,” Costas said. “They will be able to plan one way or another.”

Costas said his eyesight was compromised for months after the Sochi Olympics and his prescription kept changing, which scared him. He said he initially had to call MLB Network games off the monitor because he had trouble seeing deep fly balls from the naked eye. Costas said things cleared up by June 2014. One of the gratifying things after the Olympics, he said, were strangers coming up him after the Games asking how he was and telling him they appreciated the effort.

There was one subject away from the Olympics that Costas wanted to discuss because he feels (I’d say accurately) he’s been portrayed unfairly in some Internet circles. He’s been tagged as being critical or part of the backlash against Caitlyn Jenner since an interview he did with fellow NBC colleague Dan Patrick last June. The interview in full can be found here.

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“I prefaced what I said to Dan Patrick in that interview for at least a minute by saying I am completely sympathetic to anyone trying to find their own way in life as best they can—and to increase tolerance and understanding and dignity for any American who pursues his or her life on their own terms,” Costas said. “Anyone who knows me or knows how I feel about things like this. The idea that whether you think Caitlyn Jenner should receive the [ESPYs] Arthur Ashe Award is a litmus test for how you feel about transgender issues would get you thrown out of any class in Logic 101.

“My point was very simple: The Arthur Ashe Courage Award and Jimmy V Awards are what redeems the ESPYs to a point, and what Ashe stood for wasn’t just progressive and self-sacrificing commitment to social issues but he stood for grace and dignity. His memoir was entitled Days of Grace. There might be something a little bit discordant about aligning that with someone until virtually minutes before that had been the patriarch of the Kardashian clan. The other part would be this—and I applaud her [Jenner] for whatever she is doing now—but until the moment she received the award, Bruce Jenner nor Caitlyn Jenner had ever been involved in any social issue. There didn’t seem to me to be any connection, which had nothing to do with whether you were sympathetic or not to the cause of transgender people.

“What I suggested was I thought it would be a great idea to have Caitlyn Jenner present the award to Renee Richards who is still alive and in her 80s [81] and who was a transgender person while an active athlete. She was Dr. Richard Raskind and became Renee Richards and played competitive tennis against Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. Look it’s television, I’m not naive. If you want the eyeballs Caitlyn Jenner would bring to it and if you want to have Caitlyn Jenner make what turned out to be a beautiful speech, it’s your show, you could make it anything you want. Let Caitlyn Jenner present the award to Renee Richards, who would deserve the award. And let her [Jenner] make any speech you want. Then you have checked all the boxes. That to me is a reasonable, rational thought. So when I see out of carelessness, laziness or the Googlization of journalism in regards to my name being linked to the backlash against Caitlyn Jenner or transgender causes, it makes me wince because it’s wholly false.”

THE NOISE REPORT

(SI.com examines some of the most notable sports media stories of the week)

1. I would have predicted this year’s ratings for the Kentucky Derby would have gotten a bump from American Pharoah’s win last year. But that wasn’t the case. Nyquist’s brilliant win drew an overnight rating of 9.4, down 14% from last year’s 10.3 overnight. Here’s the caveat, as pointed out by Fox Sports vice president of research Mike Mulvihill: The Derby ratings have been rising over the past few years so a one-year decline could be just an incidental blip or a natural correction. (NBC said the Derby telecast has posted 9.0-or-better overnight rating for 10 consecutive years.) Last year’s race averaged 16.0 million viewers—up 4% from California Chrome’s victory in 2014. The viewership numbers should be out on Monday so we’ll see how they stack up.

1a. The top local markets for the Kentucky Derby telecast was (per usual) Louisville. The rest were as followed:

2. Cincinnati
3. Ft. Myers
4. West Palm Beach
5. Tampa
6. Buffalo
7. Richmond
8. Pittsburgh
9. Hartford
10. Denver, Orlando and Jacksonville

1b. I thought NBC horse racing announcer Larry Collmus had a great call of the Derby. Here it is if you missed it.

2. As Skip Bayless winds down his tenure as the lead wrestling heel on the ESPN2’s noxious chat show, First Take, it’s worth wondering how much input Stephen A. Smith will have in choosing a new partner. When I asked ESPN management last week, here is what they said. “Stephen A. has input into the show every day, so yes he will have input into his new partner,” said ESPN vice president of production Norby Williamson. ”Ultimately, it is management’s decision, however. Skip is with the show until the NBA Finals conclude so an announcement is not imminent.”

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I believe management here. I think the final call will be made by ESPN executives but Smith is going to have major input on the choice, and just as important, I’ll predict the show will center around him in the post-Bayless era given Smith has become one of the faces of the network (which tells you something). I’d look at it as a 1 (Smith) and 1A (the Bayless replacement) situation. The name that keeps popping up amid ESPN circles is Will Cain, who has roots in conservative outlets and would give ESPN some cover when it faces criticism for having too many left-leaning front facing talent. If history serves, Cain will say stuff to get attention, and ESPN management will continue to buy summer houses on Cape Cod. 

“We have a history of—without bragging—navigating change, and I would say successful change,” Williamson told SI two weeks on the subject of First Take talent succession. “We have built something over quite a time here. Stephen A. and Skip created a great chemistry together, which clearly resonates, and the numbers don’t lie with viewers. But I think we have a track record of managing change, innovating and moving forward.

“The show is a performer but even beyond that it has made a strong connection with sports fans. I appreciate the fact whatever opinion you want to have about this show, and that’s why there are different flavors of ice cream. Fans clearly have a connection to this show and what we offer with it. That’s going to continue, and we are here to serve fans. We have a big tent to do a lot of different sports and studio shows.”

2a.Sports Business Daily assistant managing editor Austin Karp reported that viewership for the first round of the NBA playoffs was down across ABC, TNT, ESPN, ESPN2 and NBA TV. Karp reported the average viewership was 2.8 million viewers, down 6% from 2.98 million viewers last year. He pointed to the first round having 28 games decided by 10 or more points, including 13 by 20 or more and five by 30 or more. TNT had the bulk of the first round telecasts and its 23 games averaged 3.05 million viewers, down 7% from 3.29 million viewers.

2b. Loved this call of Bartolo Colon’s first career home run from SportsNet New York Mets broadcaster Gary Cohen.

2c. Mashable’s Sam Laird wrote a long piece titled, “Colin Cowherd and the racial dog-whistling of an NBA superstar.” 

3. Episode No. 56 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features ESPN host Adnan Virk, a versatile player who works on the network’s college football and MLB coverage, as well as ESPN Radio.

On this podcast, Virk discusses the defections of Skip Bayless and Mike Tirico, the impact of being the first Muslim anchor to be hired by ESPN, how often his religion interacts with his job as a public person, his friendship with Curt Schilling and Schilling reaching out to him after Schilling’s ESPN suspensions, whether being a generalist is good or bad for a sports TV host, how he arrived from Canada to work at ESPN, the Canadian star of Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole, whether he was a legit contender to replace Scott Van Pelt after he left his radio show with Ryen Russillo, whether Danny Kannel is a bro or pro, the importance of being repped by a well-known agent if you want to get a major job in the field, taking photos with Bayless, his favorite scene from Heat, the potential of a future podcast with Matthew Berry and Michelle Beadle and much more.

A reminder: you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunesGoogle 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 Deitsch.

3a. Appreciate the podcast invite from FS1 soccer analyst Alexi Lalas. Last week I appeared on Lalas’s The Mutant Gene Podcast and we had a long discussion on authenticity versus inauthenticity in sports television through the prism of FS1’s philosophical shift to feature opinionists and provocateurs (I’d use wrestling heel or professional B.S. artists) such as Bayless across its afternoon bloc. Think you’ll appreciate it.