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The Tokyo Olympics are turning into NBC's worst nightmare

Matt Brennan, Greg Braxton and Tracy Brown, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Tracy Brown, staff writer: For me, figuring out how to watch the Olympics has felt like an Olympic-caliber obstacle course because I’ve been trying to catch the events I care about live before I get a news alert or see results trending on Twitter. This has meant figuring out, as has been mentioned, the various broadcast and livestream schedules — all while running on very little sleep. Even then, there’s no way to stay on top of everything, so I also am strategic about choosing what to watch when.

Luckily, the sport I’ve been most excited about — softball returning to the Olympics for the first time since Team U.S.A.'s stunning loss to Team Japan at the ’08 Games — is one I’ve been able to watch more or less spoiler-free. Softball kicked off its preliminary rounds even before the opening ceremony, so I got an early start in trying to adjust to the time difference. And, as of this writing, I still haven’t watched the Gold medal rematch between rivals U.S. and Japan that took place in the predawn hours Tuesday (in Pacific Time). But because so many other big storylines have dominated the headlines, I think I’ll be able to experience it as if it were live — if I’m careful.

And that’s kind of how the strategy part comes into play for me. I stay on top of the events I know I want to experience unspoiled and prioritize watching those live whenever possible. I appreciate the packaged primetime programming block for what it is, but I leave that for the nights I haven’t picked anything specific to see, or when no live event holds my interest. And then there are some sports, like gymnastics, where the feats of athleticism are so amazing that even if I know the results, I’ll tune in anyway. While it may not always be the specific athlete or team I’m rooting for, someone is going to have some incredible Olympic moment or memorable story.

All that is to say, I very much had mixed feelings in the lead-up to the Games, with the reality of the surging pandemic and the people of Tokyo and Japan calling for the event to be canceled. And I still have moments of playing mental gymnastics when I think about the bigger Olympics picture. But I love sports stories — even when I have no idea what the rules are sometimes — so as soon as the events got started I got sucked in despite how hard NBC, and the real world, have made it.

Brennan: You are so right, Tracy, about the silver linings: Whether the star is a Tunisian swimmer or a Filipino weightlifter, there are inspiring stories to be found in the Olympics so far, even if the spotlight isn’t shining where we might have expected. That’s the nature of sports.

 

Ultimately, my disappointment is not in the competition itself, but in the sense that the Olympic television I grew up on has not grown up with me.

In my job I often say that people don’t watch TV the way they used to, so we can’t cover TV the way we used to — and NBC has unfortunately failed to reinvent the model developed in Sydney, Athens and Beijing for an ecosystem now dominated by streaming platforms and social media. All of the struggles you’ve enumerated above and others cited to me by our LA Times colleagues, are symptoms of this problem: live coverage bouncing between networks, the lack of timely on-demand replays, Peacock’s unintuitive design. Even the tradition of focusing the lion’s share of promotional attention on a handful of name-brand American stars like Biles seems parochial in a climate of global fame and increased sensitivity to the pressures on elite athletes.

I don’t envy the decision-makers at NBC, who are faced with broadcasting a highly complex, real-time sporting event to a notoriously fickle audience. Certainly, no one could have predicted what the media landscape would look like today when the network became the Summer and Winter Olympics’ exclusive U.S. home starting in 2000, or even when NBC and the IOC signed their last contract extension, through 2032, seven years ago. But it’s hard not to think that the Tokyo Games are shaping up to be NBC’s worst nightmare: evidence that one of TV’s most lucrative events won’t transition smoothly into the medium’s streaming age.

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