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Don’t look for format surprises in NBC’s coverage of the Olympics

A view from an NBC set at Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro.
(HD Studio / Courtesy of NBC)

We might someday watch the Olympics on the inside of our lids with eyes shut. We might receive the results telepathically, sent by some source straight to our brains. From our homes or pods, we might whiff the concession stand’s smells and taste the athletes’ sweat as the competition unfolds.

What might never change, aside from NBC remaining in perpetuity the conduit for Games coverage, is the formula for the prime-time telecasts.

Set up the event with a canned feature on the premier athletes, generally from Team USA. Show live close-ups of their mugs to convey calm, stress or whatever emotion they radiate. Find their kinfolk in the stands. If possible, point out a pseudo-villainous rival from another nation who has behaved unsportsmanlike or flunked drug tests. After the event, interview the principals ASAP. If the U.S. triumphs, present the awards ceremony with the national anthem as the soundtrack.

This approach is sealed with the proverbial KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid. Why mess with success? Viewers, by and large, have bought in and have not requested a refund.

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Through the first weekend of evening programming, it has been difficult to distinguish NBC’s game plan in Rio from London’s. Or Beijing’s. Or Athens’. In the ’80s, Coca-Cola infamously tinkered with its ingredients and alienated its fan base. The network has not taken that chance.

The consistency is embodied by the smooth, authoritative voice of host Bob Costas. Though he is posed awkwardly at times while standing with hand in pocket, Costas was created for this role.

On Saturday, there was a bit of poetic justice when NBC mystifyingly plopped in a Tom Brokaw piece on the Amazon River well after 11 o’clock, more than three hours into the telecast, when the audience surely wanted only sports. Just seconds into the clip, the network had to cut away and return to beach volleyball for the unexpected continuation of a match.

Unflappable, Costas cracked wise about the interruption while reintroducing it once the bikinied quartet completed the final spike.

From the venues, the play-by-play announcers, especially Dan Hicks on swimming, have been rock-solid and the analysts mostly knowledgable, if overcaffeinated. (We’re looking at you, Rowdy Gaines.).

One exception was from the beach. The crew’s explanation of the rules dispute from the aforementioned match was utterly baffling and failed to sort out any confusion for viewers.

Some gripes and cause for head-scratching are beyond NBC’s control.

While the network has a voice in the event scheduling and welcomes beach volleyball under the stars, the pumped-up opening match Saturday involving Team USA’s Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross started late and concluded past 1 a.m. Rio time, well after the telecast ended.

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On Sunday, following a feature on swimmer Dana Vollmer’s motherhood and the airing of her race, viewers might have thought they were seeing outtakes from the parenting piece. It took awhile to realize that a commercial involving Vollmer carried a similar theme. The undesirable placement can be explained on a firewall, perhaps thin, between the network’s sports and advertising divisions.

Regarding the avalanche of ads, which crop up every seven minutes or so and run for about two minutes each time? Well, NBC Universal needs to recoup its $1.2 billion investment somehow. Frequent commercials is preferable to passing the hat.

The network’s M.O. is so spot-on that social media had to gin up an overblown controversy from the weekend.

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After swimmer Katinka Hosszu killed it Saturday in the individual medley, the cameras showed her hyper husband-coach, Shane Tusup. Hicks identified him as “the guy responsible” for Hosszu’s win, and the accusations of sexism began flying.

All that was missing from Hicks’ description was “partly,” though anyone aware of the brilliant Hosszu’s backstory would have been fine with “significantly responsible.” The swimmer herself speaks of Tusup in such terms. Given the chance for a do-over, Hicks would edit the remark but not delete it.

Of course, a common complaint from the West Coast is that some spotlight night action such as swimming gets the live treatment back east while Pacific Time Zone viewers are prisoners of tape delay. That NBC should consider starting the Saturday telecasts at 5 p.m. instead of 8 and Sundays at 4 rather than 7 is an argument for another day.

Whether the images are as-they-happen or not, it is worth staying up past 11 p.m. to vicariously experience Michael Phelps’ joy as his relay team took gold Sunday.

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Then, what’s one more hour until midnight as NBC signed off with the foursome atop the medals podium — demonstrating the wide range of sentiment, from tears to smiles, that perfectly encapsulates the essence of the Olympics?


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