Gold for NBC?

02.23.14

The Good, the Bad, and the Pink Eye

NBC's Winter Olympics coverage became best-known for one of its anchor's unfortunate ailments. Matt Lauer and co. picked up the slack with unrestrained patriotic fervor, reports Brett Singer

Olympic television broadcasts are remembered for the special moments viewers share. The Miracle on Ice in 1980. Katarina Witt winning back-to-back Gold medals in 1984 and 1988. Bob Costas getting pink eye in 2014.

Wait. What?

Sochi 2014 wasn't all about Bob and his ill-timed eye infection. (Pink eye in both eyes. What are the odds?) But it was an important piece of a very strange year for NBC's Olympics coverage.

Tonight, Sunday, NBC will air the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics. Like the opening ceremonies, this is a delayed broadcast of an event that will have happened many hours earlier (11:00am EST for those keeping score at home). In fact, most of the events were shown on a delay, something that NBC's research department says "doesn't matter" to most viewers.

The ratings seem to back up that claim. Although NBC made all of the events available for live streaming via their web site (as opposed to 2008, when they asked people not to post "spoilers" on social media) and utilized every aspect of their media empire for the 2014 Games, millions of fans got their Olympics news from "The Today Show" and NBC Sports primetime coverage - even if that coverage wasn't always dominated by sports news.

Costas has anchored the Olympics in primetime since 1988. Then came the eye infections. Like most couch potatoes, I wondered, "what the heck is wrong with Bob Costas' eye?" Eventually it got to be too much and NBC had to go to the bullpen.

Matt Lauer stepped in for him, pulling a double-shift by continuing to appear live on "Today". (This breakdown of Lauer's schedule from The New York Times sounded almost as tiring as some of the Olympic events.) When Costas didn't get better as quickly as NBC hoped, Lauer was replaced by Meredith Vieira, who became the first woman to solo-anchor the Olympics on NBC.

I don't remember the previous years' coverage being so USA-centric. It's possible the Games being held in Russia revived the old Cold War narrative of the 1980's.

Consistency is important in sports coverage. Whatever you think of Costas, he's a true professional. He's been doing NBC's Olympics since 1988. That's a long, long time. Having him appear, one eye mostly sealed shut, and then be replaced by one anchor and then another was slightly jarring. He wasn't 100 per cent when he came back, as evidenced by the fact that he still had his glasses on; NBC viewers are used to Costas wearing contacts. Not that we're all a bunch of whiny babies who can't handle change. But it was a distraction from what should have been the main attraction — the athletes and the events.

Costas returned on February 19, the day Finland beat Russia in men's ice hockey. February 19 was also the day something much more fun happened: Norway's Ole Einar Bjørndalen became the most decorated Winter Olympian of all time, winning a record thirteenth medal. (It was in biathlon, but I know I'm one of the few people who care about that.) My question: what would NBC lead with in primetime? The smart money was on "Russia losing." Unlike the time I said, "A musical about cats? Who cares?" this was one to bet the college fund on.

It took an hour, but I was right. NBC Sports decided that losing was more interesting than winning. It was 9pm, EST. Cue Bob Costas, cured of his pink eye: "The headline is undebatable. Russia is OUT." I detected a hint of Cold War-era "nyah-nyah" in his voice.

"For the third straight Olympics," Costas continued, "the Russians go home without a medal, leaving the hometown fans extremely disappointed." (To be fair, they already WERE home, or at least closer than they were the last two times they didn't get a medal.) "Meanwhile," Costas went on, "another strong performance for the United States." U! S! A!

Patriotism isn't automatically a bad thing, but in sports what matters is results and good stories. Costas didn't mention Bjørndalen's achievement until the end of the primetime broadcast, and even then it was an afterthought, something tossed in during the daily medal count before pointing out that the United States had more hardware than anyone else.

"Russia loses" is not more interesting than "40-year-old breaks Olympic record." It's not like NBC avoided mentioning medal records. During one primetime segment we learned that Bode Miller (more on him later) is the "second most decorated Winter Olympian, tied with Bonnie Blair" for 6 medals, and "only Apolo Ohno has more, for an American, with 8." (Breaking news: Viktor Ahn, a Russian speedskater, won his eighth medal, tying Ohno's record. Sorry Apolo.)

I don't remember the previous years' Olympic coverage being quite so USA-centric. It's possible that it was always like this and I simply didn't notice. It's also possible that the Games being held in Russia revived the old Cold War narrative of the 1980's. I don't know how it is in other countries, but a British friend assures me that while the BBC rightly celebrates hometown heroes, they give much screen-time to non-Brits who achieve Olympic greatness. I do know that there was a lot of flag waving on NBC in 2014, and it came at the cost of good stories like Bjørndalen's. Or the Italian figure skater Carolina Kostner, who won a Bronze medal on Thursday after losing confidence and almost quitting the sport. NBC's cameras managed to capture Lori Nichol, Kostner's choreographer, telling her, "Now do you believe in yourself? Now?" It was a sweet and spontaneous Olympic moment, and it would have been nice for NBC to maybe interview Kostner the following morning on "The Today Show."

Wishful thinking. "Today" was reserved for Team USA only.

Something strange happened to the "Today" cast in Sochi. They morphed into a bizarro world version of "The View." From 7am-9am EST, lead anchors Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie shared a podium of sorts with Al Roker, Natalie Morales, and Willie Geist. (At 9am, Matt and Savannah disappeared, just as they do every morning back on Rockefeller Plaza.)

The fact that "Today" is a news program and not a chat show made for a few awkward moments. For example, here's a quick rundown from Thursday: violence in the Ukraine, then straight to a wrap up of Wednesday night's figure skating. Mention TeamUSA's Ted Ligeti's slalom medal, do promos for TeamUSA's women's hockey match, Scott Hamilton's upcoming skating analysis and an appearance by the women's bobsled team... then report on "credible intelligence" relating to a possible shoe bomb on an airplane. And then the weather report.

When not in Sochi, these segments are broken up more naturally. Al Roker is usually outside at Rockefeller Plaza; hearing him say his signature line, "let's see what's going on in your neck of the woods" was surreal when it came from Russia. The #OrangeRoom is strange enough back in New York, it was even odder to take it to Sochi: an excuse to have a segment with a hashtag. (This is similar to the changes occurring in most mainstream media outlets. I'm sitting on my couch watching people on television tell me to get on my computer and look at a website. But don't turn off your television!)

"The Today Show" stayed fairly politics-free (Friday's show featured Matt Lauer getting his feet massaged by schools of fish), as did the primetime block, with the notable exception of Bob Costas' pointed comments on Friday night. This is odd, because NBC had expressed an interest in mixing politics with sports. The pre-Sochi Games build-up was heavy on politics, with fears of terrorism and violence or some kind of discrimination against openly gay athletes.

Politics and the Olympics have always made strange bedfellows. Ted Anthony, writing for the AP, calls the Olympics ++ "Earth's most political apolitical event." ++ [http://bit.ly/1fp7fKe] The IOC twists itself into a political pretzel trying to pretend that politics play no part in the Games. One thing NBC did to address non-sports issues was to bring in New Yorker editor David Remnick as a special correspondent. Remnick, who won the Pulitzer prize for his book "Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire," offered intelligent insight about Russia during the opening ceremonies, saying that Putin, "doesn’t care if the world thinks he’s an autocrat. There’s a message he wants to give to his own people: And that's we're a modernizing, great power."

One could argue that NBC was sending a similar message. Or maybe they were just trying to deliver what an Olympic audience wants. There was very little politics: on Putin being an autocrat, the billions of dollars that was spent in Sochi, and - the most overt omission - the anti-gay propaganda laws, which some say will become an even bigger problem for Russia's LGBT community once NBC packs up and goes home.

NBC gave this and other issues some air time when Remnick returned, joined by Vladimir Pozner (described as a former "Soviet spokesman in America [who] now hosts a widely viewed interview program here in Russia"), to talk with Bob Costas about what the 2014 Games mean to the host country. Remnick and Pozner did a longer segment on the "politically-charged games"; and Remnick did a final solo sitdown with Bob on the "state of Sochi Games."

All three videos are intelligent and sobering, offering a very different view of these Olympics than anything I saw while I watched the events unfold on NBC. Pozner spoke eloquently on Russian homophobia and the physical threats faced by LGBT Russians. Remnick and Pozner agreed that as long as there wasn't a terrorist attack, Putin would view the Sochi Games as a success. As of this writing, the Games have been terrorism-free.

The most controversial sporting story from the Sochi Games (unless the figure skating scoring fiasco sticks around was Christin Cooper's interview with Bode Miller after he tied for a Bronze medal. Miller, a former "bad boy" who in 2006 said on "60 Minutes" that he skied drunk, is now 36 and a multi-medaled Olympic veteran. He broke down and cried when Cooper asked him a follow-up question about his brother, who died in April of a seizure. This caused the Internet to explode. Everyone from Keith Olbermann to the Twitterati at large was calling for Cooper's head on a frozen plate.

Everyone except for Bode Miller, who defended Cooper on Twitter and in a CNN interview, saying, "I felt like it was me, not her."

USA Today's Chris Chase wrote that Miller was already tearing up before NBC's cameras caught up with him. But in general, the Internet seems to have decided that NBC and Cooper did a bad, bad thing. But Miller is the one who brought up his brother, and if anyone was going to be upset about the questions, it would be him. He says he was more than OK with it.

What measurement will NBC use to gauge their success or failure in Sochi? Ratings will certainly be a factor; so far so good on that front. Viewers may share my mixed feelings about the coverage itself. Watching Meryl Davis and Charlie White's ice dancing was a welcome escape from reality. Not only are they exceptional athletes, they're extremely likeable. NBC did a fine job here, showing video of the cute couple when they first started working together back when their ages were in single digits.

They did less well with other athletes. Here's what I know about everyone on TeamUSA: they train a lot. They want to win medals. Many of them overcame an unidentified adversity. Death was a recurring theme; Nate Carlisle of The Salt Lake City Tribune created "a running spreadsheet of athletes at the Sochi Olympics who have been associated with the death of someone." Carlisle includes multiple news outlets, but many of the mentions were on NBC; Bode Miller's brother being the most prominent example, the late skier Sarah Burke is another. Meredith Vieira caught some flack for bringing up Noelle Pikus-Pace's miscarriage during an on-air interview, although the Tribune mentioned it as well.

During the Sochi Olympics, the Peacock network overcame its own adversity, to use one of their own clichés, thanks to Costas's pink-eye. It favored sport, heavily, over politics in this most political of Olympics. The coverage was too busy with hashtags and a half-baked hyperfocus on TeamUSA. Expect more of the unapologetic same the next time: NBC has paid a lot of money to lock up the Olympics through 2020. And I'll be there, trying once again to convince anyone who will listen about the brilliance of the biathlon.