No one plays a larger hands-on role than Bucky Gunts in shaping what tens of millions of Americans are seeing each night of the London Summer Olympics.
As head of production and director of the opening ceremonies and the nightly prime-time show for NBC, the Baltimore Friends School graduate largely determines the major story lines and images that will form the shared memory of the games – not just in 2012 but possibly for generations to come.
A four-time Emmy Award winner for previous Olympics direction, Gunts is at the center of a media strategy that has resulted in record ratings for NBC – as well as some angry criticism primarily in social media.
The 61-year-old broadcaster, who started his career working for his father, Brent Gunts, at Baltimore's WBAL-TV after graduating from Cornell, talked Friday about the games he is in the middle of directing, the big story lines of Michael Phelps and Gabby Douglas and the criticism NBC’s tape delay coverage has received from some quarters.
Q. Bucky, let me check a couple of quick facts. You’re 61 now, right?
A. I am. But I feel about 68 right now.
Q. But this year, after working 10 Olympics for NBC, you actually got to run with the torch, right?
A. I did. I put that up there as one of my personal Olympic highlights, a special moment. I had no idea what to expect, but the people [along the route] were awesome. I’m glad I got the chance to do it.
Q. I know you were a lacrosse player on a championship Cornell team. But did you have to work out to get in special shape for this run at 61?
A. I actually was a little out of breath at the end of it… Yeah, really, I’m not sure why, maybe it was the excitement, but I was definitely out of breath.
Q. What’s been the biggest challenge so far in covering the games for NBC?
A. I guess the biggest challenge for me is that within that title of head of production, I’m responsible for the overall look of NBC’s coverage. So, when I get here, I have pretty much three different jobs to do.
Number one, is to make sure that everything’s right at all of the venues from a directing standpoint – that all our cameras in the right positions that we’ve surveyed. So, that takes a little while.
And then, I’m also trying to make sure that the studios are all squared away – and that takes a lot longer. There’s a lot involved in getting the two major studios [daytime and evening] for NBC and also NBC Sports Net [NBC’s primary sports cable channel] set up.
But the biggest thing is to direct the opening ceremony at the same time and get ready for that, because that’s just such a concentrated effort for about two weeks leading up to the start of the Olympics. So, there are a lot of different things to do at the same time, and that’s the biggest challenge.
Q. Now, you’re directing prime-time coverage every night. And I know you’ve directed pretty much every kind of live sports coverage over the years from football to golf for the network. Is there a difference with tape delay as NBC is doing in these games? Does it involve a layer of editing in putting the package together for prime time? How does it work?
A. It doesn’t really work that way in terms of editing. All the editing is done at the venues – like for gymnastics or swimming. So, what we receive in the IBC [International Broadcast Center] is a finished product pretty much. So, we are integrating the studio elements with the venue elements, and then, packaging it and sending it to New York. So, in the prime-time show, I’m more involved just in studio direction with the Costas segments. And then, just making sure that everything is integrated correctly.
Q. How about the Michael Phelps and women’s gymnastics story lines? Can you talk about how those narratives look from where you sit? Do those story lines differ from the story lines you guys might have come into the games with?
A. From my point of view for Michael Phelps, I’m a personal fan because I’m from Baltimore. So, I’ve got my own personal rooting interest, not that I would let that influence my work. But both of these stories, as well as the [Ryan] Lochte-Phelps rivalry, have been driving the ratings through the roof. The gymnasts – Gabby in particular – are completely lovable and photogenic and sensational. I think everybody’s fallen in love with Gabby.
I think, at least I hope, everybody’s pulling for Phelps. And I thought last night [Thursday] that was terrific. He was successful again and he just looked great. He’s just such an unbelievable athlete. And thank goodness we have both of those groups to focus on, it’s been terrific. Obviously, we’ve highlighted them, and the ratings have been great accordingly.
Q. In the interview with Costas on Tuesday after the first individual gold, Phelps seemed so mature and even maybe wise about his Olympics career coming to an end. For Phelps, it was practically Zen-like, no? We’re you guys surprised?
A. I think he has matured. As Bob’s pointed out, Phelps has come to terms with how his career has developed, and now he’s toward the end of his career, and I think he’s comfortable with it. He seems like he doesn’t have a whole lot to prove any more, and he is actually just going out an having a good time.
Q. OK, I have to ask you about the complaints you guys have been getting in social media over the tape delay coverage… Two examples that have been probably been most cited involve the Phelps in-studio interview during the opening night ceremonies and an allegation that prime-time coverage of Russian women gymnasts was not representative of what people at the event saw? What’s your reaction to that?
A. My reaction is that I think our approach to covering Olympics is the correct way to do it. And I think we have proven with the ratings that most people agree with us. Everything is subjective, and there are always going to be people who disagree with what you’re doing, and that’s fine. It’s fine that they disagree. But, with the ratings, I think it’s certainly being proven that we’re entertaining the audience, and people are enjoying our coverage. So, I really think the ratings speak for themselves. And, in this case, I really think that’s the bottom line.
Q. On a personal level, after 10 Olympics and 4 Emmys for direction, at 61, where are you at in your career?
A. I’m approaching the end of my career as Michael does his…
Q. Really, are you serious, this could be your last Olympics? But you are so identified with NBC’s coverage?
A. This is my 10th Olympics. At this age, it is pretty hard actually – physically hard. But I’m having a good time doing this Olympics. We have a remarkable crew of people here that I am fortunate to work with, and they make it really easy to do this job… This would be an impossible job if we didn’t have such great support.
Q. So, you’re not retiring from the Olympics, right?
A. (Chuckling) I’m going to come back and direct local baseball – the Orioles. I love ‘em.