More Americans will tune in to the 2016 Summer Games than will vote in the presidential election. The idea that so many millions will watch a prime-time block of narrated action on network television sounds archaic, even absurd, in a moment of fragmented, on-demand media consumption. And yet NBC’s telecast remains the biggest event on TV.
It helps that the olympiad in Rio provides so many compelling reasons to watch. Few can deny the majesty of Simone Biles redefining gymnastics, the excitement of Usain Bolt chasing his third gold in the 100 meters, or the pride of fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad competing in a hijab.
But there’s something deeper at work, reinforcing and amplifying the inherent allure of the Games: the telecast itself. By now, the nightly broadcast of profiles and performances, highlights and recaps, feels familiar, even natural. But NBC’s primetime Olympics is a rigorously crafted product, one based on the counterintuitive idea that the Games is not a series of athletic contests, but a mosaic of deeply human stories. Weaving them into the vibrant tapestry of the Games has driven NBC’s telecast for more than two decades.
It wasn’t always this way, and it did not come together by happenstance.
NBC’s template for the modern telecast emerged from a sweeping campaign, led by legendary producer Dick Ebersol, to reimagine Olympics coverage after the network’s lackluster broadcast of the 1988 Games in Seoul. NBC saw an opportunity to shed the last trappings of conventional sports coverage–the play-by-play commentary, the casual sexism, the box-score mentality–and reevaluate what the Games mean to people. The effort identified five “magnets” of Olympic attraction, and made them the centerpiece of an unprecedented model for televising the Games. This approach hasn’t been without controversy, but it has been tremendously effective.
The Data Behind the Drama
Nicholas Schiavone remembers watching Greg Louganis compete in Seoul in what became a transcendent Olympic storyline. The celebrated American diver had struck his head in a preliminary round of the springboard event. Although concussed, Louganis recovered brilliantly and posted the highest score of the prelims. And now he was in the finals, chasing gold.
This was more than amazing television. It was timeless human drama, the stuff olympiads are made of. And for the millions of viewers watching on NBC, the triumphant moment played out in split screen–alongside a ping-pong match.
Actually, it was basketball. But Schiavone remembers it being ping-pong. Perhaps his subconscious favors an even more apt metaphor for all that was wrong with NBC’s coverage. Schiavone was toiling away in NBC’s research department, but he didn’t need a dataset to see the problem: One of the best storylines of the games, reduced to just another sporting event.
If it’s impossible to imagine NBC showing Biles or Bolt in split-screen, Schiavone deserves some credit. After the 1988 Games, which cost NBC millions in poor ratings, Ebersol paid him a visit. Schiavone knew data, but Ebersol knew the Games. He honed his skills under Roone Arledge, the visionary producer of ABC’s successful Olympic coverage, and possessed an intuitive narrative sense.
Schiavone confessed to knowing nothing about the Olympics, or sports in general, but he understood communication and storytelling. And then he quoted from Thomas Aquinas: Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur. The message is received in the mode of the receiver. That is, if NBC wanted people to watch the Olympics, it had to provide them with a version of the Olympics in tune with their expectations.
That seems obvious, but no one knew quite what those expectations were. Ebersol told Schiavone to find out. He embarked on a vast research project, drawing on interviews with thousands of TV viewers nationwide. “We started by talking to people about how they lived,” he says. “How they used television. Only in the end did we talk about the Olympics.”
Exhaustive statistical analysis identified five “magnets” that Schiavone says “draw people to the Games day after day, week after week, year after year after year.” First and foremost was narrative momentum, the idea that the Games constitute a grand story, with individual contests comprising but a single thread. The second was unscripted drama, the sense that anything can happen. This is what made the Louganis saga so powerful. The third magnet focused on the possibility of victory or defeat, while the fourth was all about idealism–the idea that the Olympics represent something noble. The fifth described a universal sort of patriotism–an appreciation that athletes take pride in representing their homeland.
NBC inaugurated this model during the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona, a telecast widely considered a big success. The Games supplied an exquisite moment of unscripted drama when British runner Derek Redmond fell from exhaustion. Long after his competitors finished, Redmond struggled toward the finish. Suddenly, a man emerged from the stands to help him. The cameraman didn’t know it, but it was Redmond’s father. The clip was shown in primetime, affirming NBC’s new approach.
Assembling the Olympic Puzzle
This year’s broadcast follows the same template Schiavone outlined all those years ago. “Storytelling is still at the core of everything we do,” says executive producer Jim Bell. This is essential during primetime, “because you’re introducing the audience to athletes that most of the audience doesn’t know and they’re trying to watch sports that, outside of the Olympics, they never watch.” After all, storytelling doesn’t work if viewers don’t know the characters.
During the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, NBC addressed this by studding the telecast with long profiles of star athletes. Viewers found them overly sentimental, and NBC discovered they impeded the all-important narrative momentum. Four years later, NBC focused more intensely on the competition, shifting the role of providing narrative and context to commentators. Over the years, the network has found a successful mix of the two approaches.
This requires immense preparation, an effort that starts years before the games with NBC dispatching researchers around the world to identify the most remarkable athletes and stirring stories, says Andrew Billings, who wrote Olympic Media: Inside the Biggest Show on Television.
Beyond the exhaustive reporting lies the pace and rhythm of the production. The Games are sport, but the telecast is television, and produced as such. Billings likens the Olympics broadcast to a vast puzzle, each piece meticulously arranged to ensure maximum engagement. This is most obvious in how NBC entices viewers to stay tuned for its marquee stories, slowly and relentlessly building up to them each evening. This, too, started with Schiavone. He called it “linkage” and deemed it the most important principle for the broadcast.
Still, there are only so many ways to arrange these pieces. The telecast of any summer olympiad invariably revolves around swimming, diving, gymnastics, track, and beach volleyball. This “gymnastics and swimming” model dates to the 1970s, but Billings says it came to the fore in the ’90s. “I think that by Atlanta in ’96 they had worked out what works in what format in what manner,” he says. “Since then, they’ve never wiped the slate clean. They’ve adapted that winning formula.”
Saved By Streaming
It looked like that formula might fall apart in London. NBC lost $223 million on the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, and 2012 wasn’t looking much better. London is five hours or more ahead of the United States, creating the possibility that people would find results and highlights online and not tune in. NBC planned to stream more events than ever, further threatening to siphon viewers from prime time. And the network experienced an online firestorm over its decision to tape-delay the opening ceremony.
Yet the 2012 Olympics telecast was the most-watched television event in history, drawing an average of 31 million viewers a night for 17 nights–219 million people in all.
NBC paid $1.23 billion for the rights to broadcast more than 6,700 hours of coverage across an archipelago of cable and digital platforms this year. For the first time, every event will be streamed live-“every frame of Olympic competition,” as Bell puts it. Does this mark the start of a new age of Olympic consumption-the first comprehensive, self-curated olympiad?
Perhaps. But the very question helps explain the unlikely longevity of the Olympic broadcast against an on-demand media landscape that disseminates and dissects information even as it’s unfolding. By packaging each day’s events as an interlocking and self-reinforcing story, NBC has protected the Games from disintermediation. It makes the pieces of action you might see on Twitter or Facebook seem like exactly that: piecemeal action. NBC’s research suggests that viewers are more likely to watch an event in prime time after they’ve seen the result earlier in the day. In other words, spoilers work to the network’s advantage. This is because, as Billings notes, people don’t necessarily tune in to see who wins. They tune in to see how they win.