NBC will give Olympic viewers plenty to watch, won’t gloss over Japan’s COVID crisis

But here’s the question: Will the ominous backdrop of the Summer Games turn off viewers, or will the shared experience draw them in?

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Raise your hand if you remember the Olympics Triplecast from the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona.

Keep your hand raised if you paid the $125 it cost to receive 15 days of 24-hour coverage on three channels — aptly named Red, White and Blue — through your cable provider.

I’m sure lots of hands went down.

The Triplecast, a partnership between NBC and Cablevision, was a colossal failure. Americans didn’t see a need to pay for coverage beyond what they could watch on NBC for free. NBC and Cablevision hoped for 2 million subscribers and ended up with 200,000.

But as you can see by how much Olympics coverage has grown, they were on to something.

As the Summer Games in Tokyo officially begin Friday with the opening ceremony, merely a slice of the 7,000 hours of coverage NBC will provide, I think of how prescient the Triplecast was. The only thing wrong with it was the price.

NBC’s coverage of these Games will span six channels (NBC, USA, CNBC, NBCSN, Olympic Channel, Golf Channel) and Peacock, NBC’s streaming service. It also can be found at NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app.

While it won’t be hard for people to find the Olympics, it might be hard for some to watch. Popular opinion says the Games shouldn’t go on. Japan declared a state of emergency because of a surge in COVID-19 cases, with a majority of citizens still unvaccinated.

Competitions will take place without fans, making for the type of broadcast many sports viewers grew to detest last year. Plus, competitors already have been ruled out of the Games after testing positive for the coronavirus, and there’s a fear more will follow.

Like most big sporting events in the last year, viewership figures to be down, and not just for those reasons. Viewing habits are fractionalized, the 14-hour time difference won’t work with some viewers’ schedules and there has been almost zero buzz in advance of the Games.

It’s an ominous backdrop, but NBC is undaunted.

“As a broadcaster of the Games, if there’s going to be an Olympic Games, we’ll be here to chronicle it,” NBC Olympics executive producer Molly Solomon told reporters. “We also are following the strict and rigorous pandemic protocols that the IOC and the Japanese government have put in place. So we’re fully confident that we can responsibly produce these Games.”

Solomon believes people are craving a shared experience that the Olympics can deliver. They also can fill a void in the sports calendar, coming right after the NBA Finals, during MLB’s dog days of August and right before the NFL preseason is in full swing.

NBC will go to great lengths to make up for athletes not having moral support on site. The network’s “Friends and Family” innovation will integrate watch parties from the U.S. into the broadcast. Their biggest endeavor will come from Universal Resorts in Orlando, Florida.

“We, alongside the [United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee], are putting together a two-week-long watch party in primetime where family members of Team USA will attend and be able to watch coverage and cheer for their loved ones together,” Solomon said. “We’re going to have a reporter there and the ability to connect relatives with athletes.”

Despite a potential drop in viewership, the Olympics figure to be the most watched programming on TV, particularly in prime time. During the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, NBC averaged 27 million viewers in prime time (including digital), according to Sports Media Watch.

NBC won’t ignore the COVID crisis in Japan. Solomon said that will be evident from the network’s first prime-time broadcast at the opening ceremony. Lester Holt, formerly of CBS 2 Chicago, will set the scene and explain how the Olympics are operating within the state of emergency.

“Our policy and our coverage of news has always been, how does that impact the athletes, how does it impact the Games, how does it touch the Games going forward,” Solomon said. “So as news around any of these issues comes up, of course, we will cover it.”

There will be plenty more to cover. Gymnast Simone Biles might be the American face of the Games. The U.S. basketball teams are always appointment viewing. The women’s soccer team is trying to become the first to win a World Cup and Olympic gold in succession. And baseball and softball are back.

There’s no doubt NBC hopes to chronicle the competitions more than COVID.

Remote patrol

  • The White Sox return to ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” this weekend against the onetime archrival Brewers in Milwaukee. Eduardo Perez will fill in for Alex Rodriguez, who’s taking a prescheduled week off. (Talk about good timing.) Maybe ESPN can dig up video of former managers Terry Bevington and Phil Garner going at it in 1995.
  • ESPN2 will air the first round of the NHL Draft at 7 p.m. Friday from NHL Network studios in Secaucus, New Jersey. John Buccigross will host alongside Canadian broadcaster Sportsnet analysts Elliotte Friedman and Sam Cosentino. NHL Network will air Rounds 2-7 beginning at 10 a.m. Saturday.
  • Pat Hughes will fill in for Jon “Boog” Sciambi for the Diamondbacks-Cubs game Sunday on Marquee Sports Network. Sciambi will call the Sox-Brewers game that night nationally for ESPN Radio.
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