The Winter Olympics are here, and with them comes wall-to-wall television coverage on NBC and its cable networks and streaming service, Peacock. We can expect to see plenty of snowboarders Shaun White and Chloe Kim, Alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin, curler John Shuster, figure skater Nathan Chen and other American medal contenders. NBC will feature these athletes in promos, interviews and pre-produced profiles, as well as in actual competition. We will also be reminded of their previous medal-winning performances — in addition to other great American triumphs from Winter Olympics past.
That includes the most celebrated moment in American Winter Olympics history — the 1980 “Miracle on Ice.” The U.S. hockey team’s upset over the Soviet Union at the Lake Placid Games, and the subsequent win over Finland for the gold medal, was the ultimate American underdog story. But this stunning triumph also changed how American networks broadcast the Winter Games, in the process transforming the Olympics as a whole. The lasting influence of the Miracle on Ice will be on display as we watch NBC present the games — and it also helps explain why the network pays so much for the right to air the Winter Olympics.
Starting with the 1964 Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria, ABC established many of the features that still distinguish Olympic television broadcasts, from the opening fanfare of Leo Arnaud’s “Bugler’s Dream” to the pretaped, edited summaries of events shown during prime time. In 1964, the produced show was a technical necessity. In the age before reliable satellite links, ABC had to fly tapes of each day’s events from Europe to New York, where they were broadcast from the network’s studios.
Prime-time broadcasts of the Olympics followed the model of ABC’s popular Saturday-afternoon program, “Wide World of Sports.” Each weekend, host Jim McKay introduced a variety of sports into American living rooms, from lumberjack competitions in Wisconsin to auto racing in Le Mans. Because the athletes and often the sports themselves were unfamiliar, ABC producers borrowed from journalism and documentary filmmaking to highlight both the broader context of the event and the intensity of competition — “the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat,” as McKay intoned in the program’s introduction.
The head of ABC Sports, Roone Arledge, saw “Wide World of Sports” as education as much as entertainment — a vision he replicated for the Olympics. The broadcasts from Innsbruck included McKay’s overview of the town’s history and geography. Four years later, ABC introduced “Up Close and Personal” profiles of athletes at the Grenoble Winter Games. Most Olympic viewers weren’t sports fans, McKay explained. “We can get them interested if we bring the athletes to life as individuals.”
The profile and travelogue features were necessary in broadcasts of the Winter Olympics, because American audiences didn’t have much to cheer for. At Innsbruck in 1964, Norwegians won twice as many medals as Americans. At Grenoble, figure skater Peggy Fleming won the only gold medal for the United States. By 1976, Sports Illustrated treated Americans’ lack of success in the Winter Olympics as something of a joke. In its preview to that year’s Winter Games, the magazine profiled the “hapless” American lugers. “We have no hope for the Olympics,” SI admitted.
The 1980 Lake Placid games changed everything. In the lead-up to the Games, the preview issue of Sports Illustrated had a vastly different look, starting with the striking cover photo: speedskater Eric Heiden in his gold racing suit. True to the magazine’s prediction, Heiden completed a historic sweep of all five speedskating events. Ratings for ABC’s prime-time broadcasts spiked on days Heiden raced. By the second week, average viewership was well ahead of the 1976 Winter Games. On the best nights, ratings were comparable to the Montreal and Munich Summer Olympics.
Meanwhile, the hockey team moved through the tournament without a loss, setting up their medal-round showdown against the Soviets on Friday, Feb. 22. With the game scheduled for 5 p.m. Eastern time, ABC appealed to Soviet hockey officials to move the start time back, so the game could be shown live during prime time. But the Soviets refused, since people back home would have to watch in the middle of the night.
Thanks to the Americans’ shocking upset, even the tape-delayed broadcast of the game drew big numbers: 34.2 million average viewers. Two days later, on Sunday afternoon, the gold medal game drew 32.8 million average viewers. Hockey sealed a win for ABC. The two weeks of prime-time broadcasts had an average rating of 23.6, still the second-highest rated Winter Olympics of all time, surpassed only by the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding circus that tore apart the U.S. women’s figure-skating team and dominated coverage of the Lillehammer Games in 1994.
Arledge recognized that the value of the hockey team’s stunning win went beyond ratings. Just before the start of the Lake Placid Games, the network had secured rights for the next Winter Olympics. But when the contract for the Lake Placid Games expired, rights to footage from those Olympics reverted to the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Looking to change this arrangement, Arledge finalized a new deal later that spring: ABC would pay $91.5 million not only for broadcast rights to the 1984 Winter Games but also for exclusive control over footage from all previous Olympics. The new contract ensured that ABC would get paid any time we saw the U.S. hockey team celebrating in 1980 as broadcaster Al Michaels shouted, “Do you believe in miracles?”
Arledge not only wanted to secure ABC’s control over the 1980 miracle but also make sure the network would be home to future miracles. Weeks before the start of the 1984 Games in Sarajevo, ABC held off the other two networks for rights to the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. Five rounds of bidding drove up the price to $309 million — a seismic increase from the $15.5 million ABC had paid to broadcast the Lake Placid Games.
Media hype surrounding the 1984 U.S. Olympic hockey team deflated quickly when early losses knocked the squad from medal contention. ABC ended up having to reimburse advertisers who had paid rates based on projections of Lake Placid-sized numbers. Members of the IOC, meanwhile, congratulated themselves on having locked up the huge contract for Calgary, before the ratings flop in Sarajevo dropped bids from the American networks.
Four years later, the U.S. hockey team got off to a better start in Calgary, yet still missed the medal round. Viewers noticed a change in ABC’s coverage that year. Announcers referred to the hockey team as “we” and “us.” New studio host Kathie Lee Gifford called the players “our boys.” Even Jim McKay got in on the cheerleading, stoking viewers’ expectations with references back to the victory at Lake Placid. Gone was the more educational model of “Wide World of Sports.” Instead, ABC primed viewers to root for their team. Arledge shrugged off complaints about the slanted coverage. “You don’t want boosterism,” he admitted, “but on the other hand you’re showing a pleasant event to people.”
The 1988 Winter Games ended a quarter-century of ABC airing the Olympics, but the network had left its mark by creating the template for what the Games would now look like on television. ABC pioneered the athlete profiles, travelogue sketches and edited presentations of events that we still see on NBC’s prime-time broadcasts, even though all events are streamed live. The coverage of the Beijing Games also centers on the American quest for gold. Beginning with Lake Placid, ABC recognized that American viewers turned on the Winter Olympics to watch American athletes win.
ABC also dramatically drove up the price for showing those winning athletes. The two contracts Arledge negotiated after the Miracle on Ice increased rights fees for the Winter Olympics by nearly 1,900 percent. Since taking over as the Olympics network, NBC has continued to pay ever-growing fees to the IOC. The network forked over $963 million to broadcast the 2018 Winter Olympics, making up the bulk of the $1.4 billion in global television revenue brought in by the PyeongChang Games. In the last four decades, the IOC has ballooned into a multibillion-dollar organization dogged by charges of hubris and graft. American television has bankrolled this transformation as networks hope to thrill us with new Olympic moments even as they remind us of past triumphs.