NBC’s Coverage of Olympic Track and Field

I told everyone I knew who cares even the slightest about sports or my hometown of Toledo that it was happening at 2:00 pm on Tuesday, August 7. It was the men’s high jump final, and Toledoan Erik Kynard, an alumni of my junior high and who spent his freshman year at the high school where I teach, was in the Olympic high jump final.

I had been telling people for the last three years that when this day came, Erik would be one of the last half-dozen jumpers still competing in the Olympic final. I was watching at NBCOlympics.com, I had a score sheet set up and kept the chart, and was live-tweeting and Facebooking the competition as it happened.

Toledo has had Olympians before, including gold-medal boxer named Skeeter McClure (a former student of my grandmother’s who went out of his way to introduce her to his friend, Cassius Clay), but it had been a generation since one was a real medal threat in a high-profile sport. Local media has long known how good Erik already was and how good he could be and kept him in the news. The city was plugged in on this competition and lots were watching online, and many people told me that the webstream made it so easy to follow the competition.

I got a jolt of adrenaline when Erik was the first over 2.33 meters. The weather was cold and windy and had been interfering with other athletes but not Erik–you’d better get used to it if you plan on doing high school track in Toledo–and as more and more athletes missed, it became obvious that Erik was in prime position to win an unexpected medal. A few more misses, and it was down to him and Ivan Ukhov for the gold.

I immediately contacted my sister-in-law, as the regulars at the sports bar she owns and operates are mostly graduates of Rogers High School, Erik’s alma mater. I said she needed to organize a watch party, and she sent the word out through her social media advertising.

So we all went. People were pumped. We watched. And we waited. And we waited. Finally, a small amount of high jump competition was shown and the place exploded in cheers for Erik’s serious face, goofy socks, and stern conversations with the high jump bar.

And then NBC went back to gymnastics, and we waited and waited and waited some more. I’m not a late-night kind of guy so I finally gave up and went home. The next day I was told that the remainder of the competition was shown at at 11:55pm and occupied 37 seconds of air time.

Our collective mood was joy at the success of one of our own but was deflated by irritation and annoyance. I know we were not alone, that millions upon millions of American viewers felt similarly mistreated and put upon by the most failure-prone network of the last two decades.

Erik will be on The Late Show with David Letterman tomorrow night, and I’d hazard a guess that his air time there will three to four times as long as the air time for the entire Olympic high jump competition. Four days later, NBC gave nearly four hours of live television coverage to the men’s 50 kilometer race walk–that’s right, the least interesting competition of the Olympic Games got more air time than the high jump, and by a factor of more than 100. These two points illustrate how horribly NBC mistreated not only its audience but itself, by lowering the value of the most expensive property it owns.

I’m not here to rant about NBC’s general ineptitude in showing the Olympics. There are plenty of others who have already written about how NBC simultaneously managed to get near-record numbers of Americans to watch the Games yet get them pissed off at the same time. No, I’m here to talk about how NBC in particular has screwed up its coverage of track and field and how it has screwed up the sport.

Finally an alternative

In response to an Ato Boldon tweet of a news story pumping up NBC’s massive viewership, a professional sprinter responded with “that’s because we had no other choice”. In other words, just because lots of people watched the content NBC had to offer doesn’t mean they liked the way it was presented. (And, I might add, just because they were big doesn’t mean they couldn’t have been bigger had NBC operated differently.)

I should start by saying that 2012 is literally the first time I’ve ever had to depend on NBC for coverage of the Summer Olympics. I have always lived close enough to Canada to be able to watch CBC’s coverage on its Windsor affiliate. They never tape-delay anything nor over-produce it, and commercial breaks are far fewer and shorter than on NBC’s coverage. They presume you have at least half a brain and treat you accordingly. Unfortunately, privately-owned CTV won the rights for this quadrennium and none of their affiliates are available in Toledo. So I was stuck with NBC.

Still, I had an alternative to network television, as NBC streamed the whole shebang. I have no idea how many people watched online, as NBC hasn’t been forthcoming with that number, but it was probably much bigger than anticipated given the types of streaming problems widely reported in the early days of the Games.

We track fans have used the internet to watch the so-called “world feed” of international track competitions for years, and we know how good they are and how bad NBC is. Now many non-track fans have been exposed to the same thing through NBCOlympics.com and I can’t tell you how many people have said to me that the webstream was so good and the TV coverage is so bad–and now they realize how bad it’s always been.

One sent an e-mail:

I thought by and large their coverage of team sports on channels like NBCSports and MSNBC — mainly soccer and basketball…– was great…They were using the visual feeds from the Olympic broadcasters, so there was little they could screw up that way, and because the producers “get” team sports and the announcers had some “cachet” (particularly with soccer and basketball) they were covered like typical games and were spared the heavy-handed treatment of the primetime coverage.

As for track and field, thank god for the online streaming coverage — I watched almost all of it this way, and it was refreshing. Of course, they were just picking up raw feeds… but this was exactly what made it so great — the graphics were top-notch and informative, and the with the lack of announcers it was like watching a sports version of how C-SPAN covers events: just set up the camera and let the event be the star of the show without meddlesome framing from idiot producers and what the Brits call “presenters.” (There was also a track feed with really good British announcers, but I tended to stay away from it because it was more prone to freezing up, and because without natural breaks in the action — they would switch to field events between race on the track — the online ads were more likely to disrupt action at inopportune moments.)

This is just one voice but representative of many.

NBC is killing us

Many local NBC affiliates put together some video packages of their own to run during the lead-in to prime time. Here in Toledo, WNWO taped sessions with University of Toledo head coach Kevin Hadsell, and at one point the sports anchor asked him why track and field isn’t more popular in non-Olympic years. Kevin responded by blaming USATF, everyone’s favorite punching bag. I do think they bear some responsibility, but I think the worst offender is NBC.

NBC manages to take a sport that is quite compelling and make it boring. There are many problems with NBC’s general handling of the Olympics, but the worst thing in how they handle track and field is that the producers apparently view an evening session at the Olympic Stadium as a half-dozen separate mini-events rather than one cohesive whole. Thus they’re quite happy to cut it into tiny pieces and spread it all around the night’s coverage, something they would never dream of doing with a basketball game or even a water polo match.

Another way of summing this up is in an exchange from John Madden’s Hey Wait a Minute, I wrote a Book. When he showed up for his first TV broadcast in 1979, the CBS suits said something to him about having a great show that night. He replied that it’s not a damn show, it’s a game, and they better treat it that way. NBC producers sees a track meet as a show, not a bona fide competition. (In fairness, you could say the same thing about the Olympics in general.)

Why is NBC’s Olympic coverage killing track? Because what they do is the template for what everyone else does. It’s dull. Dull. Dull. My God it’s dull, it’s so desperately dull. Individual race coverage can be good, but as a whole it misses the boat.

What we all know, but NBC producers do not (or don’t care to acknowledge), is that a track meet is a three-ring circus. There is always something going on, and there should never be dead time between running events. Another metaphor is that while each individual race might be a brick, the field events are the mortar to fill in between and hold it together into one unit.

Miserable announcing

Actually, I think NBC has a fairly good set of announcers, but producers and directors do not allow them to do their best work. Ato Boldon shines and is the best I’ve ever heard, but NBC producers are so overly infatuated with sprints and hurdles that everyone else is hamstrung.

Lewis Johnson is given the “sideline reporter” job and while he’s good at it, they’re wasting the talents he has to offer in calling middle distance races. When he’s been allowed to do it, he’s quite good. Craig Masback is not exactly electrifying but he knows his stuff when it comes to distance races as well.

The man who is most screwed over in using his talents is Dwight Stones. Why on earth they don’t keep him in the booth and give him a Telestrator is totally beyond me. This isn’t 1985 anymore, and that kind of technology isn’t even a financial drop in NBC’s Olympic broadcast bucket. He should be allowed to be the field events’ Ron Jaworski, the man who shows us the nuts and bolts of how things happen (or not happen, as the case may be).

(Further on the topic of Stones, why must he recite standings in field events rather than us being able to see them on screen? Why do announcers have to tell us splits or the number of laps remaining? The screen-corner graphical stat summary has been in existence for eighteen years and yet NBC hasn’t been able to use it for the most-watched show they have in any four-year period? It’s almost like NBC suits have a personal vendetta against track and field.)

But if there’s one announcer with no redeeming qualities for track and field, it’s Tom Hammond. He is, as my e-mailer said, “so clueless that it would be funny if you weren’t screaming in frustration”. While he can tell you who is leading a distance race at any particular time, he “has no concept of race tactics or when who’s leading is important and when it isn’t… and it’s obvious he doesn’t get track because his end-of-race calls are identical to how he calls horse races.” An NBC Olympic track and field drinking game I proposed included taking a chug every time he says “[insert name of athlete or relay team] is off to a good start!”–which is every single damn race regardless of whether they actually are or not. He knows nothing and cares not. There’s an apocryphal story floating around that he once publicly said he finds track boring, and whether it’s true or not doesn’t really matter because the masses find it so believable.

NBC executives keep around a horrible announcer and don’t let most of the others do their best work for one simple reason: they just don’t care. Rather than spend some effort building fan bases for the so-called “Olympic” sports, they throw gobs of money at the Big Event, the Olympics, and then tear their hair out just trying to break even on the deal. Meanwhile, ABC/ESPN has managed to do what once seemed impossible, which is to build a U.S. fan base for soccer, and they make good money on the World Cup. ESPN hired away Ian Darke from Britain–considered possibly the best soccer announcer in the English language–and we’re stuck with Tom “they’re off to a good start” Hammond. Idiots.

Where do we go from here?

The are two thing we in track and field can take from the recent Olympics as hopeful. One is that large numbers of people were exposed to the Olympic Broadcasting Service’s video feeds via NBCOlympics.com and learned that track and field can be done well. The second is that while, as my e-mailer said, “NBC doesn’t give a shit about what people think as long as their ratings are decent”, its current television model is doomed in the long term due to the pressures of the internet.

If there is to be movement away from NBC’s atrocious model of televising track meets and towards a more interesting and exciting one, NBC itself won’t do it. Nor will they be swayed by complaints from fans. The only way is for a formal group to strongly and consistently lobby for better coverage, from NBC and from others.

USA Track and Field would seem to be the logical organization to do that. Deposed CEO Doug Logan actually attempted to do something about TV coverage, as Larry Rawson was dumped from USATF broadcasts early in his tenure, and he spoke about the need to work with television partners to look at European broadcasts and learn about what could be done better. Whether he was unable to do those things because he didn’t have the requisite skills to make them happen or because he was canned before he had the time to make a difference is immaterial; he understood that the quality of television coverage was an important part of the sport and his organization. No one else seems to get that.

The other solution for track fans appears to be that all of us just pack up and move to England. France or Germany might be better if you know the languages.

Team USA won 29 medals, one of its best outings since World War II, at the top of their competitive ability. NBC became less popular than Congress.

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10 Responses to NBC’s Coverage of Olympic Track and Field

  1. runbei says:

    Heartily concur. However, skipping lightly over all that, there are present solutions. See, for example, this article by Stephen Vaughn-Nichols: http://bit.ly/Pq4kSc. I can testify that the AllAnonymity proxy service (www.allanonymity.com) worked dandy. Could have watched a dedicated BBC3 (I think) presentation of the high jump finals.

    Long-term, it’s fathomlessly dumb of NBC not to offer an Olympics paid feed to computer users who don’t have cable TV. Wouldn’t they be bucks-up?

  2. AndrewJ says:

    Personally, I almost admire NBC’s dedication to tape-delay. There were races that occurred live on Saturday afternoon (i.e. the womens 4×1) that they held until nearly 11:00 pm that night.

    The contrast I noticed watching the British guys online vs. the NBC idiots is that the NBC boys only know how to repeat the name of their pre-selected star. The Brits actually describe what’s happening in the race. I thought Masback did a nice job in the mens 10k, though.

  3. JimBriggs says:

    Excellent blog. I couldn’t agree more with all of your points. NBC is absolutely atrocious with their track and field coverage, and Hammond is the worst.

  4. Coach Larry says:

    Finally, I realize that I’m not alone in hating the way NBC covers track meets (Olympics or otherwise). Tom Hammond is the worst, but Lewis Johnson’s “interviews” come pretty close. I could offer essentially the same answers as the athletes without even seeing the competition. Instead of asking a question about race strategy he’ll ask if they are glad they won! Lose these interviews and provide more field coverage.

    But the biggest issue is how NBC suits have decided to package track & field. Stars they will feature are pre-selected. Cameras will stay focused on this one person even if other Americans are in the heat or final. And if they don’t medal as expected, the talking heads have no idea what to say (as was the case multiple times during the Olympics).

    What most track fans don’t realize is that USATF pays NBC to broadcast most track meets, not the other way around. That means that USATF should insist on wholesale changes to the way meets are presented. If not, our governing body is part of the problem.

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  7. Francis A Schiro says:

    I was not going to even comment on this article and as I agree with you 100% You are right on “target”.. A few minor observations I might add..for Boldens experience he is at best an “ok” track and field announcer…he tends to “play it safe” for the most part.and in regard to”insight”basicly a ZERO..Stones seems more impressed in his ability to pronounce hard to pronounce last names so he will repeat them CONSTANTLY to show us his great skill!!! WOW great job Dwight!!….Hammond quite frankly sounds like a fool to this track fan..no knowledge very little depth..and they actually PAY him for this??? Overall I feel NBC does not care and they clearly show it by delivering such a shoddy,incomplete “product.” Track and Field which is actually a VERY exciting as welll as a dramatic sport gets cheated and we fans really get cheated. Thank God for the energy you have for our sport to continue with this imformative ,interesting, itelligent BLOG…thanks!!

  8. Brad K says:

    This is the same network that uses Dwight Stones, a high-jumper, and a female sprinter to cover events like the mens US marathon trials and Boston marathon. With all due respect, high-jumpers and sprinters have no clue what distance runners go through. There is no more similarity between sprints and distance training than between water-polo and soccer. Why aren’t Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers covering the distance events? Do you think NBC would dare have a distance runner cover a football game? So why do they think our sport doesn’t deserve expert coverage. Because they are all ex-football players, and they don’ t care. Its that simple. God bless the internet!

  9. David Graham says:

    I, too, agree. For this Olympics, I was down in Ecuador and watched them using the European television feed. The Latin sports commentators didn’t know the first thing about track & field, but the television coverage was so good that it didn’t matter. ALL athletes were shown (not just one or two), there was a running clock in the corner, distance covered in another (including in the marathon, e.g., “30.3 km”), splits, close-ups of many athletes during a race or field event, instant replays, etc. Also, there were no sob-story biopics of the athletes. In all, it was great, and goes to show that if you have people who know what they are doing with television production of a track & field meet, then even if the announcers are average it can still be a great viewing experience.

  10. Patrick Ouzts says:

    First time commenter… really enjoy this blog. As an avid watcher of the BBC’s athletics coverage, I simply couldn’t stand watching NBC’s version during the Trials and the Olympics themselves. If you get a chance check out Michael Johnson’s work on the BBC; he is simply one of the best analysts out there because he is fair and meticulous in his work (much like his races). I often wondered why he his working for a foreign broadcaster, but I realize now it is the best place to not have is talents wasted (NBC).