Olympics

NBC needs big names to remain in spotlight at Beijing Olympics

Christophe Pallot/Agence Zoom
American television viewers are very familiar with skier Mikaela Shiffrin.


In the first few days of a new Olympics, the television coverage is too often saccharine, oversaturated, and far too inclined toward story line rather than sport.

But eventually — and this is what makes the Olympics so irresistible — unexpected stars emerge, established stars quest to reach the podium again, and the early prefabricated story lines get hip-checked aside by the authentic outcomes of competition.

This year, more than in any other Summer or Winter Olympics on record, NBC needs the well-known names — snowboarders Shaun White and Chloe Kim, skier Mikaela Shiffrin, and figure skater Nathan Chen, among them — to remain in the spotlight.

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And it desperately needs some new names to become overnight stars and capture the interest of the American television viewer that has hundreds of options for programming with just a click or two of the remote.

The Opening Ceremony for the Beijing Olympics are set for Friday, with competition beginning two days earlier. On Wednesday, the coverage begins with USA Network airing mixed-doubles curling, women’s ice hockey, and men’s Alpine skiing. NBC’s network coverage begins Thursday with figure skating and freestyle skiing events. CNBC will also be a television outlet for broadcasts.

NBC will stream every event on Peacock, more than 2,800 hours of competition. Beijing is 13 hours ahead of the Eastern time zone in the United States, so, for example, events airing on a Monday morning there would air live in prime time on Sunday night stateside.

The time difference is mostly favorable for NBC, and the network is counting on the mutual promotional benefit of having the broadcast rights to the Super Bowl on Feb. 13, the middle Sunday of the Olympics.

Mike Tirico will serve as the prime-time studio host of the Olympics, as well as the host for the Super Bowl.

“I’m lucky enough to work with both teams on the Super Bowl pregame and hosting our coverage of the Olympics right after, so I get to be the automatic quarterback on two great teams,” he said. “It’s like the sandlot dream on the biggest stage possible coming to life.”

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But those are about the only things that have gone right heading into the Games. Among the complications:

· China’s strict COVID-19 restrictions have played a factor in NBC deciding not to send its broadcasters and crew to Beijing, instead calling events from the network’s Stamford, Conn., studios. Meanwhile, only “select” spectators, none from the general public or outside of China, will be allowed at events, sapping some of the emotion from the broadcasts.

“We have to do everything to keep people safe and sound,” said Pete Bevacqua, NBC Sports Group chairman. “But with advancements in technology, that connectivity between what we’re doing in Beijing and what we do here in Stamford in our home base, I know we won’t skip a beat.”

· The NHL announced in December that the league’s players would not participate in the Olympics (much to the chagrin of some, including the Bruins’ Brad Marchand).

· Because the Tokyo Summer Olympics ended less than six months ago, there is already a degree of Olympic fatigue before these Games begin.

· China, with its authoritarian government and history of human rights violations, was at best a problematic choice as host. Molly Solomon, executive producer and president of NBC Olympic production, said the geopolitical issues will be addressed in coverage — to some degree.

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“Our coverage will provide perspective on China’s place in the world,” she said. “But the athletes do remain the centerpiece of our coverage.”

Add it all up, and unless multiple athletes both new and familiar become must-see phenomenons during the Games’ three weeks of competition, NBC is going to be looking at the lowest average viewership in Olympic television history.

The Tokyo Games over the summer had the smallest viewership of any televised Olympics, averaging 15.5 million on NBC, plus its cable and streaming outlets. The least-watched Winter Games were also the most recent ones: The 2018 PyeongChang Games averaged 19.8 million viewers on NBC plus cable and streaming.

For NBC to avoid another low, it doesn’t just need something akin to a Miracle on Ice. It needs something close to a miracle in a lot of places.

Poor replacement

MLB Network going from Ken Rosenthal, whose contract wasn’t renewed after he was too critical of baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, to Rob Parker on its Hall of Fame announcement coverage was the equivalent of the Red Sox replacing Roger Clemens with Steve Avery in the 1997 season. Parker, among other trolling transgressions, complained about the election of David Ortiz because of “gray areas” with performance-enhancing drugs, then acknowledged he voted for Barry Bonds, Clemens, and Sammy Sosa … NESN says it is still finalizing plans for its Red Sox broadcast teams for the 2022 season. One addition we’d like to see in some role: Will Middlebrooks, who offers informed and humorous analysis for CBS Sports and has as engaging a Twitter presence as any recent ex-ballplayer … Celtics fans might not want to hear this, but I’ve seen a rough cut of the pilot for the upcoming HBO series “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty,” based on author Jeff Pearlman’s book “Showtime,” and it’s going to be a massive hit. The casting, particularly newcomer Quincy Isaiah as Magic Johnson, is uncanny. It premieres in March.

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