US sports coverage last week was split neatly into two distinct, Jungian halves, represented by those sportscasting sweethearts, married couple Dan Hicks and Hannah Storm.
Hicks works for NBC, and called the swimming competition at the London Olympics. His enthusiastic descriptions of Michael Phelps and Missy Franklin winning gold appeared only on tape delay during prime time, a four-hour show that pulled in monster (and unexpected) ratings for the Peacock.
NBC long ago abandoned prime-time broadcasting of the Summer Games in favor of narrowcasting. It leans heavily on the female-friendly sports (mainly gymnastics and aquatics), heavily edits them into feature-laden, soft-focus chunks, and pumps up the jingo—foreign athletes are only mentioned in the context of the obstacle they present to the American athletes. Hicks plays a large role in this presentation as the lead voice at the swimming venue, adding post-produced commentary if needed.
What NBC airs isn’t sport but lightly scripted drama, along the lines of its reality programming, where the structure is crafted ahead of time and the unpredictable results of the games themselves are slotted into the prefigured framework. If that means outraging the Twitterverse by tape-delaying a few swims, or cutting a gymnastic routine to maintain the pretext of close competition, so be it.
The massive fees NBC pays for the rights to broadcast the Olympics ($1.18 billion for London) essentially underwrite the International Olympic Committee, and the network makes no bones about serving shareholders first. It is the company’s responsibility to bring as many eyeballs to prime time as it possibly can, especially given the train wreck that is NBC’s standard entertainment schedule. They’ve been doing this for many years now—the “controversy” shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Still, it would have been nice to see NBC anticipate the outrage for once, and experiment with its tried-and-true formula to incorporate those for whom “live” is paramount in sports.
The gargantuan ratings NBC has drawn would seem to indicate that the whole sports world is enraptured by the Games. A flip over to ESPN suggests otherwise. The “Worldwide Leader in Sports” focused its coverage on a female-friendly sporting icon of its own: Tim Tebow. Hannah Storm was the locus of this transparent ratings grab, anchoring weeklong coverage from the New York Jets training camp in Cortland, NY, where the hyper-popular (and polarizing) Tebow, the Jets new backup quarterback, did light stretches, threw a handful of passes, and signed autographs. Any newsworthy football-related activity was done out of the camera’s eye.
That didn’t stop ESPN from treating the these early warm-up sessions as it would the Final Four or the World Series, with Storm and her cohorts, Ron Jaworski and Sal Paolantonio, dominating the network’s “news” coverage.
The scene went from absurd to embarrassing when a cameraman caught Tebow jogging shirtless through the rain. The video clip instantly dominated ESPN’s many platforms. Storm herself giggled like a smitten schoolgirl while talking to the beefy backup about his frolic. Her giddiness was understandable—she now had a shirtless, muscular, and wet athlete of her own, just as her husband had Phelps and Ryan Lochte!