NBC begins coverage of another challenging Olympics

The world hasn’t experienced Olympics so close together since 1992. That could lead to some Olympic fatigue among viewers, but NBC has bigger concerns.

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The Olympics are back. Events are underway, and NBC will air the opening ceremony Friday night.

I know what you’re thinking: Didn’t we just do this?

We did. Not even six months ago, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Games concluded. The world hasn’t experienced Olympics so close together since 1992, the last time the Summer and Winter Games were held in the same year.

That closeness of competitions could lead to some Olympic fatigue among viewers, but NBC has bigger concerns.

First is the location of the Games. China’s human-rights abuses have led to diplomatic boycotts from several countries, the first of which was the U.S. That and the country’s authoritarian government have cast a pall over the Games.

NBC’s event broadcasters won’t be in Beijing because of the pandemic and the country’s strict COVID-19 protocols. They’ll call the action from NBC Sports studios in Stamford, Connecticut, though the network will have reporters from its news and sports divisions on site.

The hockey tournament won’t include NHL players, and that figures to affect TV ratings, which already are expected to sag. According to Insider, parent company NBCUniversal cut its expectations for ratings by up to half.

Who’s excited?!

Actually, if you’re a fan of the Olympics, there are reasons to be excited. NBC took to heart consumer complaints from its coverage of the Tokyo Games, which frustrated viewers with its labyrinth of programming on myriad channels and platforms. Granted, the Winter Olympics are smaller in scale – 2,800 hours of coverage compared to 7,000 – but NBC heard its audience.

“We really focused on making the thousands of hours we produce more intuitive,” Molly Solomon, president and executive producer of NBC Olympics production, said in a presentation to reporters. “How can you make it easier for the viewer to find what they are looking for?”

One answer is NBC’s streaming service, Peacock, which will show everything – live and on demand – without the need for a pay-TV subscription. Most Comcast customers already have free access to Peacock. Others can pay $4.99 for the month and watch on any device or just rely on NBC, USA and CNBC for their 700 hours combined.

Solomon also said NBC improved the schedule feature on NBCOlympics.com and will provide TV viewers more information on the screen to remind them which events are coming up and where to find them.

Now NBC just needs content worth watching. The Winter Games traditionally aren’t as popular as the Summer Games, and the U.S. team is low on popular names. Alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin, figure skater Nathan Chen and snowboarders Chloe Kim and Shaun White are the top American athletes. The network could use more to attract viewers.

Perhaps they’ll come from the women’s hockey team, which again will contend for the gold medal and includes several players from the Chicago area. Or maybe the men’s curling team, which surprised the sport by winning gold at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games.

Some of NBC’s commentators could help. Former alpine skier Lindsey Vonn will make her NBC Olympics debut as a prime-time correspondent, and the popular duo of Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir return as figure-skating analysts. Chicago media will be represented, with Blackhawks analyst Eddie Olczyk calling hockey from Stamford and Leila Rahimi of The Score and NBC 5 reporting on hockey from Beijing.

Of all the working media, NBC host Mike Tirico figures to be the busiest. He’ll host the prime-time show from Beijing through next Thursday, then fly to Los Angeles to continue hosting the next night outside SoFi Stadium, site of the Super Bowl. He’ll host again Saturday before leading the five-hour Super Bowl pregame show Sunday, then return to Olympics coverage right after the game.

“I get to be the automatic quarterback on two great teams,” Tirico said during the presentation. “It’s right from the trophy presentation back to our set outside of SoFi, weather permitting, to bring everyone some great Olympic coverage, as well.”

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