Five (Other) Ways to Improve NBC’s Coverage of the Olympics

There has been an enormous amount of discussion about whether NBC is failing or not in its broadcast of the London Summer Olympics, summed up by Linda Holmes’ excellent post bridging the gap between NBC’s business interests and viewers’ interests, neither of which are mutually exclusive. But beyond the questions of tape delay and streaming, I’ve been thinking about some ways to make the Olympic broadcasts more invigorating, and so have many of you. I took to Twitter to ask for suggestions. Here are the best ones, along with a couple of ideas of my own:

1. If you’re going to tape delay events, make good use of that constraint to provide continuity and momentum. “For commercials, pick up where they leave off rather than skipping stuff (parade of nations),” suggests Elizabeth Rosenzweig. And Mina pointed out that edits should be aimed at genuine slack time in events: “Using the editing options afforded by tape delay to show more events. Eg, Show a score immediately after a routine.”

2. Check the nationalism at the door. “I’d love to see more focus on int’l athletes,” offered Brian Forte. “Olympics are about bringing the world together, but NBC only talks about USA.” NBC has done a decent job of covering non-American Olympians in events where they are clearly preeminent, like Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, or Chinese swimmer Sun Yang, who was the subject of an interesting biographical piece that got at the tensions of his training in Australia. But the coverage is still oriented towards sports where Americans tend to make strong showings. A more interesting primetime broadcast would show more willingness to introduce sports where Americans aren’t dominant and with which American audiences tend not to be familiar, and to focus on athletes whose presence is geopolitically important, whether it’s the Saudi women or the experience of stateless Olympians.

3. More historical and technical pieces, fewer profiles. One of the best profiles of the Olympics broadcasts I’ve watched was of Olga Korbut, the 1972 Soviet gold medalist whose emotional performances both popularized gymnastics and became a Soviet propaganda tool. It was a deft explanation of all the elements of artistic gymnastics and of the ways individual athletes can become symbols, and the rich footage NBC used in the piece were a great way of demonstrating how the sport has evolved. Stepping away from stories of personal struggle might take some of the spotlight off individual American athletes, but it would allow NBC to provide greater perspective on the events and geopolitics of the games, beefing up the news magazine content and providing variation in the broadcast in the process. In addition, NBC would be crazy not to partner with the outlets who have provided some of the most outstanding graphical coverage of the games, including the New York Times, which has provided impeccable, easy-to-comprehend technical breakdowns of individual sports.

4. Give viewers a clear schedule. “Did they use to have a clicker that showed how long until the next event? I miss that. When is track and field? in 18 min,” wrote in Adam. NBC’s primetime coverage is extremely long, and there’s something punitive about pushing marquee events, especially those with strong appeal to younger viewers, like gymnastics, to the absolute end of the broadcast. “More apparatus finals in Gymnastics, plus the men’s 400m final in Track & Field coverage. Also, qualifying in men’s springboard Dviing, a men’s Beach Volleyball quarterfinal, and the men’s sprint final in track Cycling,” isn’t actually a descriptor that lets a family plan their evening viewing. I’m sure that’s how NBC wants it, to get as many people glued to the television as long as possible. But a more comprehensive schedule would make sure fans could be there for the events they care about most, and would help parents make decisions about whether letting a child stay up for fifteen more minutes actually made sense.

5. Eliminate poolside, trackside, courtside, etc. interviews. If fluff is the enemy, the interviews with athletes immediately after they compete are even more egregious than profile pieces. I’ve yet to see one elicit useful perspective on the event or surprising emotion. And they intrude on athletes’ chances to celebrate or grieve, and for us to cheer their victory or share their disappointment. Bob Costas has made his mistakes in these games, but he’s a strong interviewer, and I’d rather save all these snack-sized bites and let him make a meal of one or two athletes each night (and hopefully, to include some non-Americans).