The people putting 7,000 hours of Olympics coverage on screen for NBC are facing some Olympic challenges all their own.
The coronavirus pandemic crimped the ability of producers at NBC Sports to get footage of members of Team USA and other competitors as they went through their training. NBC’s video profiles of the athletes usually take months to put together and are one of the signature elements of the company’s Olympics effort. Meanwhile, Japan’s decree not to allow live crowds in Tokyo has sent NBC scrambling to cover U.S.-based gatherings of athletes’ “friends and family” in dozens of spots across the nation.
Jack Felling and LeeAnn Gschwind have helped produce decades’ worth of Olympic moments. But neither of these coordinating producers for NBC Sports & Olympics have faced the challenges presented by the 20201 Games.
“I’m working on something that hasn’t existed before,” says Gshwind, who is responsible for setting up the live gatherings of Team USA supporters at home.
The producers are just two of the dozens of NBCUniversal employees who have had to recalibrate long-held practices to accommodate an event for which there is no longer a playbook. NBC has been televising the Summer Olympics since 1988 and the Winter Olympics since 2002, and traveled to Tokyo in 1964 for a Games where the network discovered it could transmit a live event via satellite in color. None of that work, however, has prepared anyone for the tasks associated with the 2021 edition of the extravaganza.
NBCUniversal has essentially had to construct an Olympics support system, tear it down, and build it anew. The company’s ad-sales unit, for example, managed to secure more than $1.25 billion in national commercials for the 2020 version of the Tokyo Games before they were postponed. Some Olympics sponsors had to walk away from those deals, while others put a down payment on 2021 appearances. NBCU said recently it expected to surpass the ad totals it garnered for its 2016 Games in Rio.
Felling knows the feeling. His team had already started capturing footage of athletes well before the 2020 Games, only to find that most of it would be useless. If those films were used now, audiences would notice how much the athletes and those around them had aged, he suggests, noting that the team had captured images of track star Allyson Felix that, if shown now, woulid seem out of date.
“That world was just a different world,” he says. “Just about everything we shot before the pandemic was a do-over.”
Felling had prepared for the NBC Sports features to consist largely of interviews of athletes via Zoom, but in spring, he recalls, travel became more possible. His team rushed to get on-the-ground footage. The group usually prepares about 50 profiles, which producers believe are important to help audiences get to know athletes they only see every four years. In a normal Olympics endeavor, the pieces are shot and finished and ready for primetime. In 2021, he says, some of the pieces are still “raw,” and will require more work before getting on screen, where many of them will be narrated by Uma Thurman.
Audiences may not notice any differences in the vignettes, but they won’t be able to ignore the absence of crowds in the stands. Neither will NBC.
In past years, a producer working on NBC’s Olympics coverage might have been able to send a shot of an athlete’s spouse or mom and dad watching them compete from the stands. NBC this year has placed cameras with dozens of families; at pre-planned watch parties; and at a site in Orlando where Olympic families are able to stay over the course of several days and watch their athletes compete in a larger setting. NBC has worked with Olympic gymnast Simone Biles and her family, who have set up sleepovers for friends at a favorite gym. Participants will get up at 5 a.m. to watch Biles and her fellow athletes compete in finals, and the network will be able to show their reactions. Friends of swimmer Lilly King will gather around a big screen placed in an Indiana baseball field near her home.
“This is definitely a new set up,” says Gschwind.
Other TV outlets have tested these waters, ESPN helped boost its coverage of the NFL Draft by establishing feeds in the homes of coaches and athletes’ families, giving the Disney-owned network a critical mass of footage it could show viewers at a time when the traditional football gathering wasn’t possible to assemble.
NBC producers will be able to show families reacting at critical moments, such as a victory, and even have the capacity to set up conversations between victorious athletes and their fans back home. “We want to bring some of the Olympic atmosphere that happens in all of these different places to our broadcast,” says Gschwind.
The producers say they are likely to use what they learn from Tokyo again — and, potentially, soon. NBC Sports will televise the 2022 Winter Olympics from Beijing in February, and there is a chance the company may have to contend with pandemic conditions again. “I would not be surprised if the concept of friends and family sticks around,” says Gschwind.
At least one element of Olympics coverage has remained the same, says Felling. No matter how much NBC prepares in advance, he adds, “we throw out our plans” and cover the action as it unfolds on the ground.