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.

"I've been getting that kind of information by e-mailing and talking on the phone to friends on the team, coaches, a lot of journalists there covering for the horse publications. It's definitely not the same as being there, just because every course is different. It's not like a tennis court or a basketball court or a pool, which never changes dimensions. So it's definitely a challenge. It's the same way in the show jumping. Fortunately, people have been great in getting back to me, so I'm getting the information I need."

It's difficult to truly fathom why NBC is leaving so many broadcasters behind. A network spokesman recently told the Chicago Tribune that it was "part of a mandate from the IOC to reduce the strain on the host city by bringing fewer people."

In a nation of 1.3 billion, in a city of 17 million already teeming with thousands of athletes, tourists and international journalists, it's difficult to imagine how a few more announcers working out of Beijing's massive Olympic broadcast center -- or perhaps other facilities nearby -- could possibly make much of a difference.

NBC "told me with the Olympics getting so large, it was difficult to get credentials for everyone," Smith-Taylor said. "And I'm sure it's the cost, too."

Still, you'd also think that NBC's $894 million rights fee payment surely would entitle the network to any credential it felt was necessary to get the job done. And with NBC announcing last week that ad sales already have exceeded the $1 billion mark, it's hard to believe that a few more broadcasters and technicians in China could possibly cut into NBC and parent company General Electric's handsome Olympic profits.

Not having all those broadcasters on site actually smacks of cheating viewers who are actually seeing the same pictures from the world feed the broadcasters are talking over in New York. It's roughly akin to a sports columnist writing about a Redskins road game from his living room, a practice that is generally frowned up in the print media, though sadly, it now also happens far too often as newspapers keep slicing bodies and travel budgets.

NBC's far away announcers also are hamstrung by not being able to do any interviews with the athletes from New York. Essentially, they're at the mercy of a world feed that goes out to every country around the world, and certainly is not American-centric, another shortcoming.

Smith-Taylor wanted no part of even suggesting viewers are not getting NBC's best shot with the events being handled from 30 Rock. Many of those sports being covered from New York have never gotten much or any play on NBC's prime time or weekend network coverage, she pointed out. And now they're getting more television exposure than ever before, even if the announcers aren't there up close and personal.

"I was hugely disappointed not to go," Smith-Taylor said. "But I'm not a professional broadcaster. I love the sport, I love being able to share the information I have and I really love being involved in the whole Olympic movement. I'm very happy to be a part of it, even if we're not there."

Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Len.Shapiro@washingtonpost.com.

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