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Despite improvements, NBC's Olympic coverage remains maddening

Posted by Eric Wilbur, Boston.com Staff  February 10, 2014 10:45 AM

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The men’s Olympic downhill was some 15 ½ hours old on Sunday when NBC ran a Mary Carillo special feature on Siberia.

Siberia. It even featured this guy:

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Carillo’s whimsical jaunts through the culture of host cities have become the norm for NBC’s coverage of the Olympiad, which despite efforts to provide real-time coverage through broadcast and online streaming from Sochi, Russia, remains what it has always been; a pre-packaged soap opera less focused on athletic achievement than it is crafting and manipulating story lines best-suited for its audience.

The NBC set might as well be decorated with gumdrops and have “Everything is Awesome” as each evening’s into music. So far, during these Games, the network has already cut a speech from IOC president Thomas Bach calling for tolerance during the Opening Ceremony (Due to “time constraints, of course. Where were the time constraints when America needed Matt Lauer to shut up?), has stayed far away from Russia’s anti-gay stance (even vehemently insisting that Germany’s rainbow-drizzled uniforms were not, in no way, ever, a political statement), and the only news we’ve heard about a stray from Bob “Visine” Costas was when Shaun White decided to opt out of the slopestyle competition.

I mean, there’s more controversial content on “Caillou.”

Give NBC credit for the way it’s finally handling online streaming of every event in these Winter Olympics, a venture that nearly every outlet around the world delivered four years ago from Vancouver, but the venture still comes with its flaws. Yesterday’s downhill competition, arguably the best event that the Winter Games offer, took place at 2 a.m. ET. It was, indeed, streamed online, and highlights were available on NBCOlympics.com throughout the day.

Alas, if you’re not a cable subscriber, or just wanted to watch on a 50-inch TV in lieu of your phone, NBC was nice enough to broadcast a 30-minute, condensed version of the race at 9 p.m., 19 hours after it took place overseas.

In between, we watched the women’s speed skating 3,000 meter race twice, once live in the morning, once on tape delay in the afternoon, team ice dancing, or whatever that is, live, on tape, then on tape again in prime time, ski jumping, and the Russia-Germany women’s ice hockey game twice as well, live in the morning, later on tape delay.

We get that the downhill and snowboard slopestyle are premier events, and that NBC wants to air them when it has a peak audience, but this approach is lunacy. If you live on the West Coast, you watched the downhill at midnight ET, a mere 22 hours after it took place. A message in a bottle travels faster.

The NBC networks began its broadcast day on Sunday at 3 a.m. with women’s hockey. There was no point in between then and the 7 p.m. prime time hour that it could have aired skiing? When will the network learn that its prime time audience, the one that wants to learn about the matryoshka and watch endless ice dancing, is completely different from the daytime viewer and the one who takes the time and effort to stream the endeavors online? If NBC wants to have its comfort zone in the evening, have at it. But to continue to do it at the expense of those who want to experience the Games in real-time is both maddening and antiquated.

Of course, this brings up the debate as to how to cover the Olympics with a certain segment of the population remaining a slave to NBC. But you had to live without any access to the outside world on Sunday to not know that Bode Miller failed in his downhill attempt for a medal. Nineteen hours? You could fly to Sochi and find out first-hand in only 17.

Julia Mancuso won a bronze today in the super-combined. NBC will broadcast it in some 12 hours from now, for sure. J.R. Celski finished fourth in his short track event this morning. The network will fit that in somewhere in between figure skating highlights of the past two days and previews of what’s to come.

NBC’s play-by-play personnel in the field are exceptional, and when you catch them live, is a testament to how the Olympics should be portrayed; an unmapped event that doesn’t have to fit into time constrictions or pander to a heart-tugging tale of redemption. In its downhill coverage, NBC showed the Americans, the medalists, and Aksel Lund Svindal, who finished fourth, just so the audience could figure out that American Travis Ganong finished fifth. Wanted to catch a Canadian skier? Ha!

The network’s prime time packages are so crafted that even without prior knowledge one can guesstimate the final standings based on who is shown during the broadcast. Time constraints, you know. Plus, more ice dancing.

NBC has made leaps in this year’s coverage, but it still appears to be stream or wait…and wait….and wait…for the Olympics’ premier Alpine and skating events. And just when you think that wait is over….

Well, you're probably apt to get more Mary Carillo, perhaps with a piece on the Amazing Dancing Russian Bear.


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About the Author

Eric Wilbur is a Boston.com sports columnist who is still in awe of what Dana Kiecker pulled off that one time in Toronto. He lives in the Boston area with his wife and three children. Comments and suggestions for the best Buffalo wing spots are encouraged.

Contact Eric Wilbur by e-mail or follow him on Twitter.

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