NBC's Big Olympics Deal: Armchair Play-by-Play

By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, August 12, 2008; 5:23 PM

The Beijing Olympic Games already are paying handsome ratings dividends and advertising revenues for NBC and its six other associated cable networks, with millions of viewers tuning in literally morning noon and the middle of the night to watch athletes competing at who knows what time it is in China.

Millions more unwilling to wait for NBC's live, taped and live-to-tape weekend and nightly prime time shows are getting their Olympic fix via the Internet, with live feeds streaming across the World Wide Web, as well, providing nearly blanket coverage of every event on the program over the next two weeks.

With a 12-hour time difference, NBC, which paid $894 million in rights fees to the IOC, has not been especially diligent in letting viewers outside the eastern time zone know when an event on the prime time show actually is being shown live. And it really shouldn't be all that difficult to provide that sort of information to Olympic fans around the country.

That's somewhat of a nit-pick considering that 3,600 hours of programming is scheduled, by far the most ambitious television undertaking in Olympic history. But here's another little secret many viewers may also not be aware of as the Games go on.

NBC also is showing 11 sports on all its various NBC networks that are being called by broadcasters from studios not located in Beijing or Hong Kong (where equestrian events are being staged), but right smack in the middle of Manhattan -- NBC headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. They include weightlifting, softball, baseball, soccer, tennis, handball, table tennis, badminton, fencing, archery, shooting and even some non-U.S. team basketball.

To its credit, NBC specifically has instructed its New York-based broadcasters to offer disclaimers at the top of each telecast and reminders during the event to specifically announce that the voices being heard are not attached to bodies on the ground in China. They've also been instructed not do say "here in Beijing" or in any way, shape or form to imply they're on the scene.

Because they're not. Instead, just like the rest of us, a number of NBC play-by-play announcers and color analysts are watching the action on television from the world feed and simply talking over the pictures.

Melanie Smith-Taylor, a member of the U.S. squad that won a gold medal in the equestrian team competition in the 1984 Los Angeles Games, sleeps in a hotel room in midtown Manhattan every night and arrives for work in a studio not too far away every morning at about 6 to begin preparations for her commentary on all the Olympic horse sports.

She's been working as a network analyst, and previously always on site, starting at the 1992 Olympics and loves the chance to talk to a national audience about her sport. When she was told she'd have to do it this year from New York instead of Hong Kong, she said initially she was somewhat taken aback and actually thought about not being involved.

"But I love the sport and I love doing it on television," she said. "I'm still able to share the information, and that's really what my role is all about. So we'll find a way and just do the best we can."

If she was on-site, Smith-Taylor said, she'd obviously have more access to the athletes, coaches and yes, even the horses, she would be covering. This week, she's handling the three-day event competition, including the cross-country phase when horses and riders must navigate a demanding course of flats, hills and imposing jumps, some over or through water.

"In the past doing cross country, for example, I'd be able to walk the course myself," she said. "I could see all the fences, know about the heat, the wind, whatever, and be able to talk to the riders and even walk the course with them. Being so totally removed from it here, we don't even have a written description of the course.


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