NBC’s Olympic Coverage Gets a Bronze Medal So Far

Nearly a week into NBC’s Olympic coverage: is it working for viewers?

(l-r) US Olympians David Boudia, Steele Johnson, Kathleen Baker, Katie Meili and David Plummer.
(l-r) US Olympians David Boudia, Steele Johnson, Kathleen Baker, Katie Meili and David Plummer.

Nearly a week into NBC’s Olympic coverage, is their broadcast strategy working for them? And, more importantly, is it working for viewers?

(By broadcast, we’re talking about all platforms, including network coverage, as well as cable, digital, mobile and social platforms.)

Prior to the beginning of the games, NBC Olympics Executive Producer Jim Bell, along with Chief Marketing Officer John D. Miller talked about producing the massive event.

Pointedly, massive is really the correct term given that NBC’s content distribution plans include more than 6,700 hours of coverage across all platforms.

By contrast, there was about 400 hours of coverage during the 2000 summer games in Sydney, Australia. 

Much of the over-the-air coverage is taking place across the NBC network and their cable channels, which include MSNBC, CNBC, USA and NBCSN as well as Bravo and Telemundo. 

“Sydney was the first time that we put [events] on our cable channels and we just saw massive growth there,” explains Bell. 

Miller explains the thought process behind that marking plan of the games, saying, “There are two sporting events that skew female – The Kentucky Derby and the Olympics.  At the derby, it’s largely because that event has a fashion element to it. With the Olympics is because it’s more of a reality show and a miniseries tied into one. For female viewers it’s more about the journey and less about the result. These viewers like to see the result but more than that, they want to see how it happened.”

But this doesn’t really seem to be the case with these games as many people are using social platforms to complain about those ‘fluffy’ personal pieces – like a segment about a Chinese gymnast that, broadcast in the middle of the men’s all-around competition, brought that event to a screeching halt, effectively eliminating all viewer momentum for the competition. 

Fans of the games are also vocalizing their dislike of the primetime broadcast for many reasons, but mostly about timing.

Simone Manuel.
Simone Manuel.

On both Sunday night and Thursday night, women’s gymnastics was shown at 11pm ET, far too late for most young women (and men!) to watch.  On Thursday, Simone Biles triumphant win in the all-around competition aired at midnight. The late hour made it nearly impossible for families and working folks to take in all the glory of the event. 

During Wednesday night’s men’s gymnastics competition, NBC interrupted the competition to show a swimming SEMI-final and Thursday night they pushed the last half of the women’s gymnastics competition to air not one, but two medal ceremonies. The medal ceremonies, as inspirational as they are, seem out of place when squished into the middle of an exciting gymnastics competition.

This appears to be a case of bad show stacking. Stacking is how producers lay out a show – how they ‘stack’ the elements in the broadcast.

While there’s no scientific research to back this up, right now it seems like the stacking of the Olympic prime-time broadcast goes a little something like this – swimming, some gymnastics, let’s show anything Michael Phelps is doing, some gymnastics, back to the pool for a semi-final or a medal ceremony or two, another shot of Michael Phelps, maybe something random like a little beach volleyball (but not to conclusion), what’s Michael Phelps doing now?, oh, and now at 11pm we’ll finish out that gymnastics competition we started a few hours ago, and now since we don’t have time to show you who won that beach volleyball match, we’ll push that to the late night show at 12:30am.

Having said this, stacking a show isn’t exactly easy, but it can be done well.

Looking at swimmer Simone Manuel’s surprising (and fantastic!) win in the 100 meter freestyle, one of the things that made it so fun was that it kind of came out of nowhere during the NBC broadcast. It was sandwiched in-between a lot of other swimming and at a time when many viewers were no doubt waiting to watch the conclusion of the women’s gymnastics event. It was a great, fun surprise, and given that Manuel is the first African-American woman to medal in an aquatic event, that also made the moment poignant and significant in many ways. This was a wonderful way to showcase this unexpected win. That was some good stacking there.

Cutting NBC a little more slack, it’s not easy to program a primetime block when there are a gazillion sports going on, but this sort of begs the question – if NBC is using so many of their broadcast channels why don’t they REALLY use them to divide up the events into more viewer-pleasing showcases?  For example, maybe use the NBC primetime show as a sort of ‘curated/highlight show’  – showing those dramatic moments that everyone wants to see while also informing viewers of what’s airing on other networks, then using those networks to air competitions in their entirety, like airing all of the women’s gymnastics on Bravo and all swimming heats and finals on USA.

And how about a channel solely dedicated to those personal profiles? Sort of like an ‘Olympic Biography Channel.’ Then anyone that wants to see those can just switch to that at any time. Or, maybe just putting all of these online and then directing viewers to these with a crawl during competitions.

Currently, for sponsors and advertisers sake, NBC has to be a slave to the ratings of that primetime show, but it just seems that seeing as how those ratings are down for these games maybe it’s time to rethink the programming/advertiser/sponsor strategy for the next Olympics.

There have been a few things that NBC has done  well– they’re doing a fairly good job of streaming as many sports as possible, and, they’re utilizing all of their broadcast channels to show sports that might otherwise not get much attention.

Bell explains the thought behind this, saying, “At the 1996 games in Atlanta, women’s team sports in particular were not on TV at all, which is amazing to think about.  They were just getting about :30 of highlights in primetime and that was it. Women and girls wanted to see soccer and things like, that so in that area we’ve come a long way.”

The network has also shown that they’re able to go off book and capitalize on the unexpected. They were quick to recognize the popularity of Saturday Night Live star Leslie Jones’ hilarious tweets and videos about the games, and quickly got her to Rio to give her access to athletes, offering yet another (and awesome!) perspective to their coverage. (You can follow her at

The nature of the Summer Olympics, with its once-every-four-years competition, immediacy, and triumphant wins and heartbreaking losses, seems to be just the kind of event that should unite a viewing audience, and it does in many respects, but, as this first week has shown, there is certainly room for improvement.

NBC’s Olympic Coverage Gets a Bronze Medal So Far