One of the great Olympic traditions in this country is criticizing NBC’s coverage of the Olympics. So far, the Rio Games have given detractors plenty of reasons to throw penalty flags, including a delayed broadcast of the Opening Ceremonies that featured often insipid commentary from Team NBC (sample: “Check out Djibouti!”); a plethora of sexist remarks during play-by-play of events; and, this being America and a high-profile televised event, an overwhelming number of commercials.
To be fair to NBC, they have done a few things right. As it has for more than a decade, NBC has made effective use of its sister cable networks, broadcasting live coverage of a wide variety of events on Bravo, MSNBC, NBCSN, and others, in addition to offering a robust amount of streaming coverage. So far, I have found these broadcasts much more straightforward and focused on the competition than the prime-time coverage, as well as less likely to be marred by insensitive remarks about female athletes. (I watched a lot of women’s tennis on Bravo over the weekend and nary a sexist remark was heard. Hey, guess who was providing the commentary? Two women: Mary Carillo and Rennae Stubbs.)
That’s not going to change, especially given that the 2018 Winter Games will be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and the 2020 Summer Games will unfold in Tokyo, cities that are both 13 hours ahead of U.S. East Coast time.
But even with that curated mind-set in place, surely there are things that NBC could do to improve its Olympics coverage, in prime time and elsewhere, even if they can’t quite manage those things in time to make them work in Rio. I am sure Olympic-bingeing readers have ideas about how to make the coverage better, too. I’d love for you to share those suggestions in the comments. In the meantime, here are a few of my own.
1. Be less sexist. My God, this should be easy to do, shouldn’t it? And yet it is so hard, America! Much has already been written about swimming commentator Dan Hicks and his unfortunate decision to say, “And there’s the man responsible” when cameras turned to the coach and husband of Katinka Hosszú following her gold-medal win in the 400m Saturday night. There’s also the constant focus on female athletes juggling motherhood, which sometimes yields refreshing acknowledgment of the toll that parenting takes on female athletes, and other times just means that one of the beach volleyball announcers will say this of Kerri Walsh Jennings during a live broadcast: “She told someone that she was born to play volleyball and have babies, and she’s great at doing both!”
NBC did devote an entire, silly packaged segment last night to showing recent dad Michael Phelps learning how to use a Baby Bjorn, but generally speaking, the talk about family, parenting, and how a partner made all the difference tends to be reserved more for the women than the men. When discussing female athletic performance, commentators also have a tendency to use men as a comparison point, something that has long been an issue at the Olympic Games. (During coverage of female snowboarding in Sochi, I nearly blew a gasket when one announcer said of competitor Torah Bright: “Torah knows how to ride a snowboard better than a lot of guys I know, and these are guys that get paid to do it.”)
How does NBC fix this? For one, the analysts and play-by-play folks should think harder about what they say before they say it. For another, while it’s perfectly natural to talk about the families of the Olympians, NBC could certainly dial back on its mommy obsession and the prepackaged pseudo-documentaries that show female Olympians doing “regular” people things, like folding laundry and getting the kids ready for school. That’s reflective of top-down thinking about how to cover the Games, which are watched by a lot of women who supposedly want to see women on a relatable “journey.” Women may appreciate the emotional aspect of the Games and the personal stories behind each athlete. I certainly do and have said as much. But we’re also here for the sports and have less and less patience for this sort of bullshit.
Another key thing NBC could do: Hire more female commentators and analysts. Last month, NBC released a list of all of the network’s Olympic commentators by sport. Not counting the more general hosts, correspondents, and reporters mentioned at the bottom of this list, which was still a work-in-progress at the time, there were 128 play-by-play commentators, analysts, and reporters covering specific sports. Out of those, only 28 were women. To be clear: Women are not immune from saying things that smack of outmoded gender stereotypes. But if NBC knows it has a huge female audience for the Olympics and is gung ho about serving that audience, then maybe they should be putting more women in the play-calling seats in the future.
2. Enable alternate audio commentary. Speaking of ways to mix things up in the play-by-play department, how cool would it be to choose which set of commentators you’d like to listen to during a given event? If it’s possible to start a second-screen experience during an episode of Better Call Saul, surely NBC could do something similar using the NBC Olympics site as a platform for live Olympics syncing. Don’t like what Matt Lauer, Meredith Vieira, and Hoda Kotb have to say during the Opening Ceremonies? Just opt for the alternate track provided by Mary Carillo, Leslie Jones, and Billy Eichner. It's probably too late to try this in Rio, but something to think about down the road in 2018 and 2020.
3. Provide more information via pop-up text. I’m not suggesting that the Olympics come with a crawl that makes it look like CNN. I do think that, especially during downtime, it would be helpful to include pop-up text or infographics that provide additional context for the viewers. My son asked me, over and over, during swimming events, “Is this for a medal or is it a preliminary?” I lost count of how many times I had to say “I don’t know” because I had missed what the announcers said beforehand and wasn’t sure. If you’re watching in a sports bar where the sound is on mute, this is an even more frustrating, constant issue. Putting something up in the corner of the screen that says “semifinal” or “medal race” seems relatively easy to do.
Using more text-based explainers at the start of certain competitions — especially ones whose rules may not be as familiar to the masses — would be really helpful as well. The Olympics is an unwieldy, overwhelming event, and NBC should be thinking about how to simplify and clarify it at every turn.
4. Less packaged content, more candid camera. The prepackaged mini-documentaries referred to earlier are often insufferable not only because they take away the opportunity to watch more actual sports, but because they also feel like exactly what they are: prepackaged. The moments that make me tear up, like watching swimmer Ryan Held completely lose it on the medal stand, or that are just plain revelatory — seeing Phelps get his game face on — are the spontaneous, candidly captured ones. Obviously NBC can’t advance-plan spontaneity, but I would rather watch a nightly photo album of Olympians’ Instagram pics or a montage of behind-the-scenes Olympic moments from various events during the day — including ones that don’t involve the United States — than a portrait of Walsh Jennings playing with her kiddos, cute as they may be.