No one said these Olympics would be easy. Not even watching them.
Midway through the first week of the Tokyo Games, even the most cautiously optimistic viewer of Friday’s opening ceremony is now likely to be rubbing their eyes: With shocking upsets, unexpected exits, a 16-hour time difference and a thicket of broadcast, cable and streaming options, the most tumultuous Olympics in years are starting to catch up with the NBC stable of networks, which hold the lucrative U.S. television rights to the two-week event.
Los Angeles Times television editor Matt Brennan, senior writer Greg Braxton and staff writer Tracy Brown have been keeping an eye on the Games from the comfort of their homes. Read on for their discussion of the difficulties facing the Olympics and its American broadcasters — and a few of the silver linings that have emerged so far.
Matt Brennan, TV editor: As I prepared for bed Monday night, idly checking Twitter, the news broke of Japanese star Naomi Osaka’s third-round upset by the Czech Republic’s Markéta Vondrousova in the Olympic tennis tournament. Tuesday morning, I awoke to an Apple News push notification that the U.S. women’s gymnastics squad had silver-medaled in the team competition after its top athlete, Simone Biles, withdrew citing her mental health. And my first reaction to this one-two punch was, “Welp, I guess that means I can skip tonight’s telecast.”
I am a casual Olympics viewer, admittedly — following the bold-faced names, like Osaka and Biles; the big events, like swimming and track and field; and the most important stories, like... what in the heck is going on with the Tokyo Olympics? Amid a set of unprecedented challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic and a crisis of legitimacy for the International Olympics Committee, I’m hard-pressed to remember a more chaotic and deflating start to what has been a TV juggernaut for most of my lifetime. I know y’all have been watching. What has your experience been so far?
Greg Braxton, senior writer: Earlier this week I tuned in to the USA women’s beach volleyball team trying to play a match in typhoon weather, which might sum up the Olympic viewing experience: The event has been overcome by a figurative typhoon. The spotlight and emphasis that NBC has placed on these opening marquee events, featuring some of sports’ biggest stars, have been crushed by a perfect storm of unimaginable disappointment and anticlimactic performances. Trying to make sense out of the maze of coverage among the various platforms of NBC, Peacock, the Olympic Channel, USA Network and others is difficult enough. Combine that with the news coming out of Tokyo about the stumbles of star athletes and it becomes doubly frustrating.
I watched the USA Men’s Basketball Team match on Sunday while reading the paper — there was no reason to pay close attention because a news bulletin several hours before announced they had lost to France. The result for the U.S. women’s gymnastics team was also broadcast far in advance, as you say. You would have had to stay in a closet all day if you didn’t want to know the outcome before turning on your TV tonight.
And I threw up my hands Monday when I found a rugby match on during NBC’s prime-time programming block — and not Osaka, who was playing her match live on the Olympic Channel. The most famous female athlete in the world was being treated almost as a sideshow on a small stage when she should have been in the center ring. The outdated model of packaging the day’s events in prime-time rather than showing one of the most anticipated stories of the Games live illustrated the network’s haphazard approach to the Olympics, which the age of social media has cast in an ever-harsher light.
It was Tuesday, though, that Olympic plans went south fastest. The hype surrounding the women’s gymnastics competition has been steadily building for months and hit a crescendo Sunday during the qualifying events. To hear Tuesday morning that Biles had pulled out due to mental health issues after making some mistakes in the preliminaries was really heartbreaking. Everything seems to be going wrong, and that — on top of the logistical issues — makes it hard for an Olympics fan like me to maintain interest in watching.
The Olympics used to be the ultimate watercooler event. People rushed home, had watch parties, talked about these amazing athletes the next day. That whole era is gone, but it’s particularly obvious during these Olympics. That became clear with the “opening ceremonies.” It’s a shame.