Reviewing NBC’s Olympics Coverage
What do Dan Hicks, NBC executives and a certain sports media writer have in common? We all called a competition over on the air before it really was, in fact, over.
My mistake happened nearly 34 years ago on a college radio station, when I said the Maryland-Miami football game was over at halftime, with the Terps trailing 31-0. Students of gridiron history know that Maryland pulled off the greatest comeback in college football history, winning 42-40.
Given the weakness of the signals of the Maryland student radio station, there are likely more people reading this mea culpa now than heard me that November day.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
NBC and Hicks, meanwhile, have no such cover for their bungle of leaving the women’s Super-G ski race last week with two skiers left and Austria’s Anna Veith, the defending champion, leading to air figure skater Adam Rippon’s free skate in prime time.
Hicks declared on air that the Super-G was essentially over, only to see snowboarder Ester Ledecka of the Czech Republic pull off a stunning upset, beating Veith by 0.01 seconds, reportedly using American Mikaela Shiffrin’s skis to do it.
NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus told Sports Illustrated Monday that, in hindsight, the network “should have left room in the (prime-time) broadcast for a miracle to happen” and characterized the declaration that the race was over as “a touch too definitive.”
But Lazarus defended the overall strategy to go to figure skating, saying “I think we would have been doing our audience a disservice had we stayed (at skiing) for a long time and missed what was becoming an important story around figure skating and something our other viewers cared about. That is the luxury and curse of live.”
What Lazarus described is also the luxury and curse of Olympic telecasts. While the Games are the ultimate in athletic competition, they are also, under NBC’s exclusive control the past two decades, a television series designed to bring as many viewers to the party as possible.
And figure skating does that in the Winter Olympics, just as gymnastics does in the Summer Games.
Indeed, while Lazarus acknowledged to SI that prime-time ratings for the PyeongChang Games are down 6 percent from the Sochi Olympics, NBC has won every night since the Olympics opened. That’s a fact of some significance, especially in the ever-changing landscape of 21st century television.
And speaking of change, these Olympics mark the biggest transformation of NBC’s formula since the 1992 Barcelona Summer Games, when Bob Costas became the prime-time host.
As part of his desired reduction in NBC duties, Costas, 65, gave up the main chair following the Rio Games two years ago, handing over the reins to former ESPN mainstay Mike Tirico, who has been competent, if not spectacular.
It’s not that Tirico, who is quite versatile, has not been good at the chief role of anchor, which is mainly to move audiences from event-to-event seamlessly.
But he’s not Costas, which, again, is not a crime, just a fact. Costas is arguably one of the 10 most gifted performers in television history. His skill at narrating the nightly preview montage leading into each Olympic telecast was exquisite and has been greatly missed.
Tirico may get there, but he has yet to discover in all of his assignments, going back to football and basketball at ESPN, the gift of letting a moment breathe and exist without inserting extraneous words.
Absent his dismissal on sexual harassment allegations, former Today Show anchor Matt Lauer might have been a better prime-time anchor choice for now, while Tirico learned the ropes.
But Lazarus told SI that Tirico is the prime-time host, a role he expects him to fill “for many generations to come.”
Tirico’s ascension is just one of the changes to the network’s approach. Stalwarts like Dan Patrick and Al Michaels are back here in the States, though their absence is likely due to the close proximity to the end of the NFL season and the start of the Games.
Still, new faces like Ahmed Fareed, Carolyn Manno, Rebecca Lowe and Liam McHugh are in key anchor roles and they’ve done well. The pictures from the ski venues and the bobsled/luge/skeleton park have been amazing. And the network has to find a way to make curling a regular part of its post-Olympic menu on the NBC Sports Channel.
The other noticeable major alteration to NBC’s Olympic approach is the move of Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir as figure skating analysts and it’s not a good one.
Lazarus calls them “exceptional broadcasters,” but to these ears, the pair are like fingernails across a chalkboard with their over-exuberance bordering on cheerleading.
Figure skating, for many Olympic viewers, is an acquired taste, but Weir and Lipinski are a dish you wish you could send back to the kitchen.