Over the next two weeks, the Marriott’s ballroom will play a key Olympic role, hosting some 50 NBC Sports staff members, who will be furiously seeking, processing, cutting and packaging highlights from events 6,700 miles away for the pleasure of American viewers. Because hundreds of NBC Sports staffers have been left home at their Stamford headquarters due to capacity restrictions in Japan — and because that headquarters has its own social-distancing requirements — the company created an annex to house them. The road to the Olympics will run through a hotel space around the corner from one of New England’s larger U-Haul branches.
As the Tokyo Games officially begin Friday with the Opening Ceremonies, covid protocols have created havoc for athletes and their events. But they have also upended the longtime Olympics network NBC, forcing a major revamp in how it broadcasts the Games. Normally a well-oiled machine, the Comcast company has had to overhaul operations now that it lacks some of its biggest production trump cards and is encumbered with a whole bunch of new restrictions. This is the most improvisational Games in modern history.
A storage space in NBC’s Stamford offices is being turned into a broadcast booth. CNBC’s “Mad Money” with Jim Cramer has been booted from its New Jersey control room to make way for Olympic sports moved into the network’s offices like golf. In Orlando, NBC has set up an encampment so athletes’ friends and family, barred from traveling to Tokyo, can conjure up heartfelt moments on American soil instead.
“This business is forcing us to adapt,” said Joe Gesue, NBC’s senior vice president of production for the Olympics, as he spoke by phone from NBC’s setup inside the global media center in Tokyo this week. “But the goal for us is that none of this appears different to the viewer.”
They have much incentive for normalcy. NBC paid about $1.5 billion for all U.S. rights to the Tokyo Games, which is a big reason executives behind the scenes were extremely keen on the Olympics happening despite growing calls for cancellation. NBC leans on the Games not only to sell a mountain of ads — 30-second spots during prime time cost an estimated average of $1.2 million — but to promote all its other activities.
Airing 7,000 programming hours across NBC, Telemundo, six cable networks and numerous digital platforms (it would take you 10 months to watch all of it, without sleep), the network will use the high-viewership Olympics to leverage people’s attention into, well everything else: new fall dramas, "Today,” Bravo reality series, that oft-advertised Peacock streaming service.
NBC has encountered many obstacles on the road to the opening ceremonies. After needing to retool programming and renegotiate advertising deals in the wake of the 2020 postponement, the network under first-time Olympics chief Molly Solomon has been dogged in recent months by uncertainty over whether the Games would even proceed.
The quiet at the venues, at least, could be offset by noises organizers pump in (NBC will not layer in its own sound) and athletes’ natural splashing, grunting and gasping. Plenty of profiles with U.S. athletes have also been recorded, augmenting the coverage.
Premade packages for international athletes haven’t fared as well — NBC was limited in its ability to enter certain countries before the Games, so there will be fewer of those.
Producers and camera operators also won’t be able to move as easily around Tokyo. They will rely in part on a drone called the Phoenix, flown by the International Olympic Committee.
Maybe most critically, NBC has had to make do without all the staff it typically brings. Japan declared a state of emergency as covid in the country has spread, and tightened the screws on how many people could attend. NBC ended up leaving in Stamford about 300 of the 1,900 people it would usually fly over.
Compounding this challenge is that the Tokyo 2020 Games (yes, they’re still calling it that) actually should require a massive influx of new staff. This year sees a historic number of events — 339 across 50 disciplines, up from 306 and 41 in Rio just five years ago. They include new sports like surfing and skateboarding, and newly returning sports like softball and baseball. There are also plenty of ongoing niche ones — mixed team archery, or artistic swimming; in a vivid demonstration of the modern content boom, the NBCOlympics site and app will air them all. In total, Gesue estimates NBC will offer a stunning 3,000 hours of competition.
All these events, NBC hopes, will yield a slew of top-tier American winners. Team sports are one thing, but the network urgently needs individual feel-good stars in these covid-clouded Olympics. Producers hope to solidify emergent celebrities like swimmers Caeleb Dressel and Simone Manuel; trade on established ones like track stalwart Allyson Felix or medal-hoarders Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky; and outright break out a fresh A-lister in personalities like skateboarder Nyjah Huston.
Yet with one of the most crucial TV elements — cutaways to family members in the stands — a no-go, the network will need to find ways to re-create that in the United States. Producers are bringing cameras around the country to the homes and hometowns of many of the 600 American athletes. Biles’s gym outside Houston, for instance, will be the site of a sleepover for many Olympic gymnasts’ families, complete with an on-camera predawn watch party to see loved ones compete.
Typically, a mix of remote and in-country, the broadcast this year will also skew remote. Several major sports, like track and gymnastics, will still feature announcers on-site. But many, from wrestling to water polo, will be called in Stamford. A full 28 broadcast booths have been built, tightly side-by-side like so many storage lockers.
Sometimes literally — running out of space, engineers converted storage space in the building into a broadcast booth.
On Tuesday night, as the competition was set to kick off with Japan facing Australia in women’s softball, Stamford was stirring. Pods of staffers were overseeing feeds; broadcasters prepped in a booth; production trucks for individual sports were outfitted in a loading dock; and a separate Peacock area was being set up. (Peacock will feature highlight shows and some events. But digital content will skew heavily toward the NBCOlympics site and app, for reasons both economic — ad bundles sold across NBC are the main source of revenue — and corporate-cultural. Newcomer Peacock is run separately from the long-established cultures of NBC and NBC Sports.)
In a control room, producer Matt Casey sat masked in front of a bank of monitors and countdown clocks running through the pre-show paces with host Kathryn Tappen in Tokyo. Casey read out a line Tappen would say: “These Olympics are unlike any that have come before them.” He then went to correspondent Jessica Mendoza on the softball field in Fukushima, then to a broadcast booth in Stamford, pieces from the world’s most unifying event flying fragmented across thousands of miles.
Indoor volleyball embodies NBC’s global bounce-around: from announcers at Tokyo’s Ariake Arena to a director at Comcast’s Sky in the United Kingdom to producers in a truck in Stamford and back again. Olympics producers also have rigged up studios or control rooms at CNBC in Englewood Cliffs, N.J.; NBC’s 30 Rockefeller Plaza headquarters in New York City; and Telemundo in Miami to accommodate covid-related spillover.
“If you told us we had to do it this way a decade ago we would have looked at you with fear in our eyes,” said NBC Sports’ Betsy Riley, who will produce Olympic track and field. "But the past year has been the ultimate stress test for how to do this.”
Perhaps the most novel of the remote undertakings is the “friends and family” commune at a hotel in Orlando, where athlete confidantes have been invited by NBC in four-night waves.
Every night throughout the Games they will watch the competition in a giant ballroom after mingling at outdoor activities throughout the day. Camera-people will be assigned to the family members, and interactions broadcast on air. What’s lost by not seeing Michael Phelps’s toddler son cheering him on from the stands or the viral-worthy specter of Aly Raisman’s parents entering various states of anxiety will, organizers hope, be regained by seeing a slew of athletes’ loved ones all nervously watching together, a kind of high-stakes Little League bleachers. Some memes just might emerge too.
"In the past the effort to get crowds involved has happened naturally — it hasn’t been a concerted effort to drill down and get atmosphere,” said Lee Ann Gschwind, an NBC producer overseeing the project. “But I hope we can bring a little more intimacy this way.”
Whether all this will be enough to attract broad interest, however, remains to be seen.
Ratings for the Rio Games in 2016 were already down from the historic highs of London in 2012: a prime-time average of 25.4 million viewers on the network (27.5 million with cable and digital) down notably from England’s 31.1 million. Without the crowd presence, and absent some key athletes, Tokyo numbers could take a further hit.
Experts are skeptical popularity will be high. Marcus Collins, a professor of marketing at the University of Michigan and head of planning at the Wieden+Kennedy ad agency, recently summed up the problem, writing that “The pandemic has, in many ways, usurped the Olympics,” because we already “competed to see which countries were faring best, which would get vaccinations first, and how they were able to mobilize their people to get vaccinated. What do the Olympics mean when we’ve already been in the world’s competition and cohesion event?”
For NBC producers, getting the broadcast to land is a challenge for another day. Right now, it is just about taking off.
“We’re up in 10,” said a producer in Casey’s control room Tuesday night.
Tappen appeared on a monitor, and three producers counted down.
“3-2-1,” one said.
“Go Kathryn,” Casey instructed, pointing.
On the monitor, Tappen said, “After a year delay, we can finally say, ‘Welcome to Tokyo,' " as the mood in the room settled more into relief than celebration.