full court press

ESPN’s Tim Tebow lovefest

Shut out of the Olympics, the 'Worldwide Leader In Sports' puts NFL front and center
August 6, 2012

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.

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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!

Going all in on the NFL made sense as counterprogramming for ESPN; NBC’s lock on the Olympics meant the folks in Bristol could only give results and air still photos of the events. Even so, ESPN did its best to ruin NBC’s suspense (imagine if ESPN had outbid NBC for the Games, as it tried mightily to do—Olympic hoopla would be inescapable). And the network has already given a large chunk of its airtime to All Things Tebow, so this was hardly a reach.

More importantly, ESPN did seem to have the pulse of its audience. Passionate sports fans (like myself) have mostly been programmed out of caring much about the Olympics. Sure, there are plenty of interesting elements, especially the fringe sports that are relegated to NBC’s cable and online platforms (nothing better than fencing, imho). But to casual fans with real jobs and families, the majority of action that can realistically be viewed is on NBC’s primetime show. So ESPN’s early dive into football, and its prioritizing baseball over the Olympics on its news shows, isn’t just the sour grapes of a network left out of the five-ringed party—it’s calculated programming aimed at those fans left behind by what was once the ultimate sporting event.

Fast Breaks
The tape-delayed element of NBC’s coverage caused some collateral social-media damage when Guy Adams, a reporter for the London Independent, had his Twitter account cancelled. Adams was relentlessly bashing NBC for its hubris, though what caused Twitter to shutter his account was supposedly his Tweet giving the email address of an NBC exec. Never mind that all NBC employees use first name.last name@nbcuni.com as an e-handle, which five minutes of Googling would reveal (go ahead and drop a line to Bob Costas and tell him what you think of his hosting). But the ban was an obvious attempt by Twitter to curry favor with NBC, with whom it is partnering for an Olympic Tweetfest from London.

Shortly after Twitter and NBC realized the uproar was simply martyring Adams, his account was restored. The silliness did reinforce that NBC isn’t programming to the Twitter crowd—obviously, anyone attempting to avoid live results throughout the day should not be on Twitter. But the sheer size of the prime-time ratings also suggests that plenty of people tuned in despite knowing the results, which certainly makes sense—pictures being worth a thousand words and all that.

Journalistically, NBC may be failing, but it’s also reaping large rewards from those failures.

Robert Weintraub is the author of The House That Ruth Built. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and Slate, and a television writer/producer based in Atlanta.