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Rating NBC's complete multi-platform coverage of 2016 Rio Olympic Games

Which NBC broadcasters deserve gold medals for their efforts in Rio? Which areas of NBC's coverage failed? This week's Media Circus takes an in-depth look at that, plus a Q&A with ESPN's J.A. Adande about his new role at Northwestern and suggestions for everything you should be reading this week.

The last 16 days have been very strange. As I wrote earlier this month, this was the first time since 2002 that I did not cover the Olympics for Sports Illustrated, meaning I have consumed the Summer and Winter Games over the last 14 years through mediums other than NBC, particularly the host broadcaster in that country. It is jarring how different Olympic TV coverage is away from the States. This is not to take anything away from NBC’s behind-the-scenes production people, many of whom are the best in the world at what they do and work endless days. But the CBC, BBC and announcer-less in-arena feeds are a much better viewing experience for sports fans. 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. But NBC is not a public broadcaster and as a for-profit business with shareholder demands, they have financial responsibilities much different than many other broadcasters. To their credit, they have never claimed otherwise.

With the Rio flame now extinguished—read this from the AP’s Stephen Wilson on what Rio might mean for future Olympics—I offer below some quick hits (using a familiar ratings system) on what I thought of NBC’s multi-platform coverage of Rio. Some of these are repeats from last week that I’ve amplified. Hit me up on Twitter and let me know what you thought of the coverage.

• Best photos from the 2016 Rio Olympic Games

Gold Medals go to…

• Ato Boldon: The track analyst is one of the best color commentators working today, regardless of the sport, and he proved it yet again over the course of the Games. Boldon actually educates viewers through his preparation, and when you listen to him, you realize how rare it is to have a sports TV analyst make you a smarter viewer. On Usain Bolt winning in the 200, Boldon explained, “He does something that no one else in this field is able to do. He doesn’t get enough credit for his ability to run the turn...He is able to run the turn and then not decelerate during the final 100.”

But the high point for me was when Boldon tipped Japan for a medal in the 4x100 men’s relay prior to the race. "This is a sleeper team,” Boldon said. “They ran an Asian-record 37.68 in their heat, beating Jamaica, and they pass the baton better than anyone else in this field. ... Some teams practice for a month or a week. Japan has been practicing for the entire year." The Japan team finished second in a new Asian-record time of 37.60 seconds, just 0.33 behind Bolt and his Jamaica teammates. Said NBC Olympics executive producer Jim Bell: “We are blessed with an abundance of talented analysts but Ato Boldon has been operating at a different level. A masters class in communication.”

• Soccer broadcaster Arlo White’s call of the penalty kicks during the men’s gold medal soccer match between Brazil and Germany: The broadcaster—normally assigned to Premier League games—delivered perfectly during the tension-filled penalties. He was particularly brilliant on the save by Brazilian goalie Weverton Pereira da Silva on Germany’s fifth kick as well as the lead-up to Neymar’s kick that sent Brazil into ecstasy. In addition to White, I thought it was a terrific decision by NBC’s primetime producers to replay the entire penalty kick session during its coverage on primetime Saturday night.

• Swimming broadcasting teams: NBC (Dan Hicks and Rowdy Gaines) and the world feed (John McBeth and Nicole Livingstone) announcers were excellent. Both teams explained specifics to viewers while maintaining terrific excitement and passion for the races. Swimming and gymnastics carried NBC’s primetime coverage early, and Hicks and Gaines did their network well. The production team, led by producer Tommy Roy, was also on point—particularly excellent was the addition of a handheld camera in the ready room. If they had a misstep, it was too much focus on the husband of Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu.

The world found out about Ryan Lochte's story ... by accident

One thing to watch: Michael Phelps told SI last week that he was interested in broadcasting in the future. I would be stunned if Phelps does not join Gaines and Hicks in Tokyo. Here is how NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus answered the question. “Of course we would love to talk to Michael Phelps,” Lazarus said. “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.”

• Lewis Johnson: The trackside reporter is understated—no shtick, no doing side entertainment gigs. Just listen to the questions he asks of the athletes. They are always direct, open-ended, and he often has to interview multiple athletes given relays.

• NBC’s streaming options: NBC’s online coverage was very strong, particularly the ability to toggle between multiple live events. Yes, it could get too commercial-heavy and I imagine many of you have experienced buffering (which may be on your own carrier), but NBC gave authenticated cable subscriptions the option to program your own viewing. There was a point last week where you had 26 live events to choose from—it’s 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. All of the access was an Olympic junkie’s dream and often the announcers were far superior to NBC’s. It was a massive undertaking and major props to the digital production teams.

• The gymnastics world feed: If you watched the women’s all-around final online, 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.

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• Camera work: Whether the OBS feed (world feed) or NBC’s additional cameras, viewers were given memorable shots throughout the games. One that comes to mind was the close-up of Allyson Felix’s desperately attempting to toss the baton to English Gardner during the preliminary run of the women’s 4x100 relay.

• Features: NBC had very good ideas and execution, from a brilliant feature on South Africa’s Wayde van Niekerk and the many layers of his story, to showing the current members of the 4x100 relay team watching previous Olympic failures in that race, to Mary Carillo profiling the woman who inspired the 1960s classic, “The Girl from Ipanema.”

• Tennis coverage: You can’t control the quality of matches but you can provide a network to show all of them. NBC Sports executives making Bravo its dedicated channel for tennis paid off with Monica Puig’s historic gold for Puerto Rico and Juan Martin del Potro’s epic trilogy against Novak Djokovic, Rafa Nadal and Andy Murray. Bravo’s live coverage of Andy Murray’s victory in the men’s tennis gold-medal match averaged 929,000 viewers.

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• Bob Costas: One of the things I learned by watching NBC’s coverage was just how little airtime Costas actually gets during the Games. But he was noticeably terrific when given some time. Here, Costas offered thoughtful words on doping in track and field prior to the women’s 1500m final: “The favorite in is world record holder Genzebe Dibaba of Ethiopia. Two months ago her coach, Jama Aden, was suspended, or arrested I should say, in Spain on doping charges as part of an investigation to his training group. Aden has yet to be convicted of any crime, and he has denied any wrongdoing. Dibaba, who is a member of an accomplished distance running family, has never tested positive in her career. Still, given Aden’s arrest and the current environment in track and field, Dibaba’s presence in tonight’s race has rankled some people. This is yet another reminder of the ever-present specter of performance enhancing drugs in track and field, and in sports in general.” That told viewers a lot in 30 seconds. Costas will really be missed when he is gone.

• Al Roker: NBC’s Today Show-ization is the least appealing part of the Games for me, and it imbues far too much of its major coverage. But Roker deserved all the plaudits he received for calling out Billy Bush’s enabling of Ryan Lochte on the air. If nothing else, Roker exposed bro (rhymes with faux)-journalism in a very public way.

• Gadi Schwartz: As New York Times reporter Richard Sandomir accurately surmised, NBC was partially complicit in Ryan Lochte’s lies. But Schwartz was always journalistically sound throughout, providing on-site reporting in Brazil.

• NBCSN: The channel was a joy for hardcore Olympic fans who wanted to experience the Games the way we experience most sports—from start to finish. It was also an oasis when you wanted to get away from main NBC’s packaging to discover the best part of the Olympics, which is seeing great athletes you normally never see in sports that feel fresh. Even on the final Sunday, it was great, with full coverage of the mountain bike gold medal race.

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Silver medals go to…

• Volleyball coverage: This sport was consistently strong for NBCUniversal, from the production to the on-air teams, particularly Paul Sunderland and Kevin Barnett who did indoor volleyball and were excellent on the United States as well as the non-U.S. teams. Their work should earn them a first-class ticket to Tokyo for the 2020 Games.

• Added enhancements: Adding a camera in the swimming ready room produced some fantastic shots, especially Michael Phelps’s staredown of Chad le Clos’s pre-swim antics. Also, it was a very cool move to mic the challenge official during Bravo’s field hockey coverage. Enhancements like that added to the viewing.

• The decision to interview Paul Kipkemoi Chelimo after he was DQ’d in the men’s 5,000 (his silver medal was later reinstated): This was not a popular decision among viewers on Twitter, and I understand that, but it was honest television and provided viewers with remarkable insight from Chelimo. Johnson also handed it like a pro. Said Chelimo during the interview: “I was trying to go to the outside to get a position, because they were blocking me in, they were pushing me to the rail. That’s what I was trying to save myself from all of the pushing, so I was trying to go the outside and stay to the outside. They wouldn’t allow me to go where I was, because he was blocking me…I was trying to stay behind Mo Farah, but they were blocking me. I was trying to defend myself and go to the outside…I can’t believe it. I was running a fair race. I wasn’t trying to impede someone. I was trying to go to the outside because they kept blocking me the whole time, the whole race…I want to appeal that because my intention was not to block anyone.”

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• NBC’s hosts: Solid work all around, from Dan Patrick to Mike Tirico to Rebecca Lowe et al…

Bronze medals go to…

• Real time information: What actually happened?There were too many instances of viewers needing more info in real time. For instance, why did Chelimo get reinstated after initially being DQ’d? NBC gave you the replay of why they believed he was disqualified but viewers were left wondering why that disqualification was ultimately overruled. Another: NBC never explained to viewers prior to the actual event coverage that defending pole vault gold medalist (and an American) was sick. (They did mention it during her competition.) That was only something you learned if you followed Buffalo News columnist Jerry Sullivan.

• Lochte co-opting: As I said above, Sandomir wrote a very interesting piece on how NBC got co-opted by Lochte early on. I think he’s mostly right, though that should not include someone like Schwartz. I also give NBC credit for addressing the incident during two primetime shows including significant time between Costas and Lauer last Wednesday. Killing Bush for being a suck-up is easy; this is the nature of Access Hollywood. I’m less inclined to kill Lauer because the onus is on Lochte, who lied to him.

• Linear viewership: Through 13 nights of Rio coverage, NBC had averaged a 15.0 rating (26.7 million viewers), the net's lowest figure since the 2000 Sydney Games, according to Sports Business Daily. No matter what they say publicly, NBC execs are no doubt disappointed with that figure given how well London did and that there were more ready-made stars entering these Games than any in the last two decades. The company had to deliver some make-goods to advertisers because it performed below ratings expectations. Still, the viewership numbers are massive against any other programming outside of the NFL, NBC crushed its competition for two weeks, and was way up on digital viewing. (Personally, I was dead wrong in my prediction: I thought this would be the most-watched Games of all time.) Something to think about heading forward: The impact of hard-core Olympic viewers dying off and millennial cord-cutters. PyeongChang is not a great time zone for 2018 and it’s unclear what role hockey will play. This could be the beginning of a decline in Olympic ratings for NBC until the 2024 Games (expected to be in U.S.)

• Gymnastics coverage: NBC’s gymnastics team—Al Trautwig, Tim Daggett and Nastia Liukin—rightfully faced criticism on Twitter for 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 did improve for the individual apparatus coverage.

No Medals go to...

• Ticket Sales: NBC absolutely punted on the story of lackluster ticket sales for the Games. It was embarrassing to see the network not acknowledge, as they should have daily and often, the lack of attendance at venues and the reasons why. That’s the kind of stuff as a viewer that makes you resent NBC’s chumminess with the IOC.

• Billy Bush: Just watch this and this.

• 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.

 • Patrick Hickey: Did you see any reporting on NBC’s primetime on European Olympic head Patrick Hickey of Ireland spending the closing days of the Rio Games in a prison following his arrest in a ticket-scalping scandal? Maybe I missed it.

• 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, was barely been touched on by NBC Sports, at least during primetime. As we said early on, if you were interested in Rio coverage away from the venues, you had to go with non-rights-holders first. I thought this piece by Phil Mushnick—who I disagree with on many things, particularly rap music and the WWE—really nailed it on NBC News here.