The inflation of NBC’s Olympics coverage over the years has been so steady and relentless that we hardly notice it anymore. For the 2000 Games in Sydney, the network aired 437 hours of Olympics coverage on its broadcast and cable outlets. This year, the total is 7,000 hours, spread out over NBC’s main broadcast network, cable channels and various streaming options, including its new Peacock premium service.
In years past, an Olympics taking place halfway across the globe would have prompted major anxiety at the U.S. network holding TV rights: how to keep viewers engaged, given that most events would need to be broadcast on tape delay? Those anxieties seem to have disappeared. Live or prerecorded, NBC has become adept at weaving the day’s events into a daily prime-time drama: shuttling back and forth between venues; building suspense for the big events, while marking time with beach volleyball; always saving the best, most inspiring moments for last, usually climaxing with a U.S. athlete on the medal stand, to the strains of the national anthem.
The nightly drama, of course, requires compelling characters, and Biles filled the bill perfectly. The four-foot-eight dynamo from the 2016 Rio Games, returning for a rare second shot at Olympic gold, was subject to the kind of adulation and buildup that no amateur athlete has ever endured: The greatest of all time. Creator of four moves so unique and difficult that they bear her name. “You can’t compare her to anybody or anything!” “Nobody has ever shined brighter on this stage!” “History books again!” — those were just a few of the effusions from NBC’s commentators when she won her seventh U.S. national championship in June.
Competing at the Olympics, especially in a sport so demanding of mental focus and physical precision, is pressure enough. Doing it under the glare of a TV network that has built you up as the star of its Olympics miniseries — can anyone blame Biles for taking a break amid the stress?
All of this, moreover, is set against the uneasy balance than NBC has to strike between the idealistic, internationalist spirit of the Olympics and the home-country boosterism needed to juice viewer interest. (Interest that nevertheless is waning; ratings for NBC’s prime-time coverage have dropped nearly 50 percent from that during the 2016 Games.) Coverage of the parade of nations during the opening ceremony typified the conflict: co-anchors Mike Tirico and Savannah Guthrie supplying nuggets of cheat-sheet trivia as each country’s athletes entered to wave their flag at an empty stadium (Liechtenstein covers an area smaller than that of D.C.!), while cutting back regularly to the U.S. team backstage, getting ready to wave their flag at an empty stadium.
The extended celebration that followed, complete with “USA, USA” chants, selfie-taking and even-more-vapid-than-usual interviews with the mic’d-up athletes (“What’s it like to walk the flag in for Team USA?”), went on for nearly as long as the 1500-meter freestyle. It’s enough to make you want to root for the other guys.
NBC’s announcers, to be fair, have been respectful of the Australians, Russians and other out-of-towners who have bested the Americans in some of the main events. Yet, oddly, I’ve found a more uplifting and sincere expression of the one-world Olympic spirit, not in NBC’s coverage, but in the commercials — especially the slickly edited, globe-trotting ads for Toyota (“start your impossible”), Visa (“working for everyone”) and NBC’s sister company in the Comcast family, Xfinity (“bringing inspiration home”).
Unlike the ads that get so much attention at each year’s Super Bowl, the Olympic commercials depend less on gimmicky satire or celebrity cameos. Michael Phelps, the superstar swimmer, does show up in an ad for Reese’s peanut-butter cups, but only to play along with the joke that the candy is so tasty it doesn’t need a celebrity endorser. “You really don’t need me?” asks Phelps, perplexed.
But we do need him. Joining Tirico on NBC’s prime-time coverage, the 23-time Olympic gold medalist has been invaluable in helping explain the stress that caused Biles to withdraw — the same sort of stress that Phelps has confessed to battling throughout his career. One culprit, it would be nice if he could point out, may be on the other side of the camera.