Re-Lived Liveness: NBC’s Tape-Delayed Olympics Commentary

While I’ve spent some recent late nights leaving lengthy comments over at The A.V. Club’s nightly Olympics coverage, where my colleagues have been breaking down each night of NBC’s Primetime coverage, I’ve largely avoided more formal writing in the interest of academic pursuits (in this case studying for preliminary exams).

However, today was the first time I watched an event—the 10m Men’s Platform Diving Finals—in its entirety live during the day and then watched the same event during the evening session, and so I wanted to expand on a few tweets I sent out that rest on a few educated assumptions and general frustrations with the temporal wonkery of NBC’s Tape Delay strategy.

The notion that NBC would air a “Highlights Reel” of the day’s events in primetime makes perfect sense, and always has. While sports fans will watch something like Soccer or Tennis or Basketball during the day because it’s a natural time frame for them to enjoy that programming, more casual viewers are more likely to turn on their television sets at night, which makes the primetime corridor the best real estate for NBC to maximize viewership and advertising dollars. The fact that it’s airing on tape delay also allows NBC to cut to commercial more often (not hampered by the lack of TV timeouts like in other broadcast sports), thus maximizing advertising revenues and normalizing what would otherwise be a sporadic, unpredictable ad pattern they couldn’t sell as well to advertisers. I consider this to be logical, business-like, and sensible.

However, in terms of how they edit the footage, the same economic imperatives aren’t present. In this case, NBC makes choices based on narrative—cutting out swaths of some events to feature only Americans, shifting focus onto leaders as opposed to also-rans, etc.—which allow them to condense, streamline, and “dramatize” events. This is where much of the criticism of NBC’s coverage has come from: even if we accept the tape delay as an economic imperative, the editorial choices made have been—from my experience following the comments at The A.V. Club and Twitter—more of a concern.

This is particularly true given that NBC doesn’t exactly call attention to the fact that this is all on tape delay: in-studio segments are treated like a sports desk shifting to different locations as opposed to different times, and although “Events edited into most important details” is the definition of a highlights reel you would never hear NBC use that term. This issue came to the forefront during the 10m Men’s Platform diving, and it stressed the temporal complication of this strategy with an event like this one. To be clear, it makes perfect sense that they would edit and condense the event: with 12 divers in the final round, showing every one of them would take considerably longer (two and a half hours, roughly, without commercials) and eat into their limited primetime window. However, when it comes to the commentary around the event, I had a lot of questions about when, precisely, the commentary was recorded.

With events like swimming and track & field, this isn’t as much of a question: while NBC shortens the time between races, they rarely ever shorten the races themselves, meaning that you could have the announcers recording commentary as a race happens and simply replay it later (while potentially recording additional commentary around it to transition in and out of Costas’ interim commentary). However, by comparison, the diving events require editing out almost two-thirds of the contestants entirely, erasing their existence and in the process an extensive portion of the event. To me, this creates two potential options in terms of providing commentary on this event:

1) Record commentary for the entire event as it happens, and then edit and cut that commentary around the athletes who ended up competing for medals.

2) Edit the footage into a narrative, and then record commentary after the fact.

In my eyes, all evidence points to the second option. There seem to be no sign of footage being edited out: there are no non sequitors, we never join a conversation in progress, and they never mention any of the contestants they’ve erased from the competition until they reach the leaderboard (and when they mention them, they sound like they’re introducing them, as opposed to calling back to something we could have theoretically seen earlier). There were also a number of moments, like this one I documented with a tweet, that directly foreshadowed future events while pretending to just be paying really close attention to the leaderboard. There are simply too many little shifts to the timing of the event that the commentators smoothly follow that I find it hard to believe there is a bunch of commentary left on the cutting room floor. The fact that we never saw the commentators poolside seems like another decent piece of evidence to support this theory.

Provided that my educated guess is correct, what’s the harm? There isn’t one—this post is not driven by moral outrage. I’ll admit that it contributed to my general annoyance with the particularly useless analyst NBC has doing the diving events, whose posturing and hyperbole becomes worse when you think that she had time to prepare these remarks, but this didn’t particularly ruin the event (which, while more exciting with more time between dives and less abrasive chatter, remained a corker of a finish).

However, I do think that it contributes to the frustration with NBC’s Olympics coverage in general. I’ve seen similar complaints regarding the quality of time delay coverage of both the opening ceremonies and the Gymnastic competition, two more events where there was clear evidence of commentary tied to editing as opposed to the live broadcasts in question; if you have no limitations of liveness, why aren’t you capable of being more educated on what’s going on in front of you? Why did I hear reports from the Gymnastics competition of commentators who had no real technical knowledge of the sport? How was it that what technical knowledge the diving analyst had was forced to remain in abstract terms when they had the ability to consult a rule book and provide more concrete information?

When we free NBC’s commentators from the lower expectations that come with liveness (although the commentators on the livestream, operating through the Olympics Broadcasting Service, where far superior live), their lack of technical knowledge about the sports in question reveals a fundamental lack of interest in informing the audience or engaging with those with knowledge of the sports. Instead, it demonstrates that NBC’s notion of populist Olympics coverage involves appealing to the lowest common denominator, stripping away the details of a sport in favor of a simplified representation.

Is there logic behind this? Absolutely. Most people watching probably don’t watch these sports on a regular basis, and so there’s an industrial logic to avoid scaring them away and trying to make the events more accessible by stripping away complex judging details in favor of interpersonal or national narratives (in other words, treating this less as a sporting event and more as an entertainment event). However, in doing so, an event that could be seen as a gateway for people to become more involved in sport (either as fans or participants) ceases to become about sport at all, which to my mind works counter to the goals of the Olympics, which go beyond serving as narrative inspiration for NBC’s Prime Time coverage.

Cultural Observations

  • Of the things NBC viewers missed during the 10m Platform Finals, a German competitor starting strong but eventually dislocating his shoulder in his final dive was probably the most eventful. The choice to focus on the four main competitors—eventually dropped to three—made perfect sense in this case, and it was more execution than intent that was at fault in this instance.
  • I’ll put this 2010 BBC documentary on Tom Daley, eventual bronze medalist, here for those who want to know more about his story. This was before his father, who features in the documentary, passed away early last year:
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6 Comments

Filed under Olympics

6 responses to “Re-Lived Liveness: NBC’s Tape-Delayed Olympics Commentary

  1. I haven’t seen any of the NBC coverage, I’m sticking with CTV. It seems like they’re doing it right. Airing it more or less live, or at least sequentially, throughout the day and having an obvious highlights reel during primetime. Our Brian Williams always acknowledges that it’s the middle of the night and these things happened earlier in the day and I’m pretty sure I haven’t noticed any re-recording of the commentaries.
    As for focusing on only American athletes and their direct competition… yeah, that’s not going to change any time soon. I’m grateful that Canadian athletes aren’t dominating otherwise I imagine I would have missed a lot of other interesting stories.

  2. I haven’t been watching the NBC coverage, mainly because I found myself watching the events live on CTV/TSN/SportsNet. I’m thankful I haven’t had to watch it as the commentary on Twitter has been brutal. I’m interested in knowing the thought processes that happen at NBC when deciding how to do the commentary and when to air events. They had similar issues during the 2010 Olympics, but maybe Twitter wasn’t as mainstream then as it is now for announcing criticisms.

    The Canadian broadcasts have had similar issues in terms of their editing choices during the primetime shows. Their focus has been heavily on the Canadian athletes, which is fine, but I remember CBC showing some other stories about the host nation, athletes from other countries, and more medal ceremonies than what CTV is showing.

    I wonder if NBC will learn their lesson for Sochi.

  3. Mathias

    In Sweden there are always two commentators with one being an expert, former competitor or coach in that sport, so I have learned a lot about sports I’ve had no idea how the rules where or why the referees judges something. One main channel and two sister channels on TV and several channels on their site for the smaller sports. All live, but we’re in the right timezone this year, but it will be the same next time but with live in the mornings and during the day and excerpts and whole games rePlayed during evenings.

  4. It’s the quality of the broadcast, as opposed to the timing, that has bugged me. I could care less about tape delay given the time differences and massive investment that needed to be recouped. But that is simply no excuse for the poorly edited broadcasts and the resolutely terrible commentary. All the platitudes that get repeatedly incessantly in place of actual analysis made my head hurt.

    You’d think NBC would realize that we all understand that all the athletes “really want to medal” by now.

  5. In New Zealand, as long as you have pay TV, we got a lot of things live (8 dedicated channels, plus a couple of others that filled in if there were more than 8 sports they wanted to carry). They also threw in quite a few “delayed” pieces into the mix, so that any event which was of interest aired more than once.

    Generally I was relatively happy with the coverage here (except for the almost total lack of online streaming, but that’s a separate issue). We had 20-something commentators over there, and they always worked in pairs, with an experienced sports broadcaster paired with someone who had a reasonable knowledge of the sport (former gold medal winner for triathlon, former head of Swimming NZ at the swimming etc). It’s a tried and true situation, and you always get people saying some dumb things at times, but generally, it worked.

    The one jarring moment in our coverage for me was early on in the games at a sailing event. The event being carried before it went long (I think it was a football match), and when they eventually cut to the sailing, they’d obviously made the decision to air it with a 20 min delay. This would have been fine, except no one told the commentator. So we were getting footage on screen of the pre-start negotiations around the line, and the commentator was excitingly telling us who was leading down the second leg. This went on for about 5 mins, when all of a sudden, someone must have gotten word to him, and he went quiet. 3-4 mins later, he started commentating what was on our screens.

    To me, this highlights the ludicrous nature of that type of coverage – he was obviously in a position to watch the course, to see what was actually happening, but instead he was commentating at a 20 min delay off a screen in front of him, and having to pretend that he didn’t know how the race was going to change…

  6. I don’t want to be the standard annoying Brit, but the BBC coverage was great…27 specially created channels, no tv advertising and Michael Johnson doing the analysis for the Athletics events…awesome!

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