The Olympics that probably shouldn't have happened are now officially over, which is good because it's time to start getting ready for … the next Olympics.
Like this summer's Games, the Winter Olympics will be broadcast by NBC, which has covered every Olympics since 1998 when CBS did coverage out of Nagano, Japan. But NBC, which will continue Olympics coverage through at least 2032, has struggled to pivot to the new world of instant news breaks, social media, and streaming; viewers widely panned the coverage out of Tokyo, calling it "atrocious," "a disaster," and "a mess."
NBC only has six months before the Winter Games begin in Beijing, but that is more than enough time to learn from their mistakes. Here's where they can start.
Please, I am begging you, make it less terrible to stream the Olympics
It's a great American tradition to bash NBC's coverage of the Olympics, but there is absolutely no excuse for how confusing it's been to try to watch the Summer Games this year. With NBC, USA, CNBC, NBCSN, the Olympic Channel, the Golf Channel, Telemundo, and Peacock all carrying coverage, it's required dense viewing guides to figure out how to watch what, and where. NBC hasn't exactly made any of it easier for their viewers: "Search in the Peacock Roku app for Tokyo," writes Indiewire, "and the first thing that comes up is The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift."
NBC desperately needs to get this straightened out, because it's shedding badly-needed viewers over the inconvenience. "I threw up my hands Monday when I found a rugby match on during NBC's primetime programming block — and not [tennis player Naomi] Osaka, who was playing her match live on the Olympic Channel," fumed the Los Angeles Times' Greg Braxton.
Having to jump between NBC's various channels or streams when an event is about to come on is confusing and stressful. Trying to revisit events afterward, though, can require clicking through literally hours of static cameras and dead air. Prioritizing a simplified, user-friendly experience with easy-to-navigate schedules in Beijing will be the bare minimum; editing the replay streams to include just the competitions and commentary would be the icing on the cake.
Don't shy away from the political
NBC treats the Olympics like feel-good entertainment, so understandably producers are reluctant to wade into the politics of the event. But as much as the IOC and broadcasters might want to ignore it, the Games are political. Pretending they aren't feels disconnected from reality, or worse, callous. Take a moment during the Tokyo Games, recounted by The Washington Post, when NBC host Savannah Guthrie "gushed" on the broadcast about the Olympic cauldron being lit. "It was supposed to represent the rising sun but then it just burst open like a flower and it just seemed like everything was blossoming with possibility," she said, while just outside the stadium journalists were "live-tweeting the protests that could be heard … because of a lack of fans."
Politics will be an even more glaring issue during the Winter Olympics in Beijing in 2022. Already there is debate about boycotting the Games due to China's human rights abuses against the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region, as well as anti-democratic crackdowns in Tibet and Hong Kong. Ignoring that those stories are also a part of the Games would be negligent to the point of complicity.
Be conscious of the mental health of athletes
Mental health was a huge topic of the Tokyo Olympics — and much of the overwhelming pressure on young athletes come from the press. Naomi Osaka's high-profile withdrawal from the French Open earlier this year, after all, was over the way that speaking to the media exacerbated her mental health struggles.
NBC has done a good job pivoting their coverage accordingly; while Michael Phelps had been brought in to talk about swimming initially, NBC used him for insight into the weight of expectation weighing on Simone Biles. But the network ought to be conscious going forward about building up expectation from fans, and seek out ways to build tension beyond the obvious answer of pitting athletes against each other.
No seriously, fix the coverage of women's sports
In the first week of NBC's primetime coverage of the Olympics, women's sports received 60 percent of the coverage, according to an analysis by The Representation Project. Great, right? But that's where the good news ends: As Lindsay Gibbs writes in her essential newsletter about sexism in sports, Power Plays, "more coverage doesn't equal respectful coverage."
As Gibbs explains, the problem is that "men overwhelmingly control [women athlete's] stories," with male commentators making up an absurd 82 percent of the live Olympic commentators. "NBC is still following the sports-media trope of pigeon-holing women as sideline reporters and hosts while allowing men to provide the actual commentary and analysis," Gibbs writes. That has consequences, because "athletes in women's sports are seven times more likely to be referred to using gender diminutive language (such as 'girl' or 'lady' or 'chick') as their counterpart in men's sports." Yes, "chick" actually got used twice in a primetime broadcast in the year 2021. Read Gibbs' full breakdown of why NBC needs to step up its act here.
Ditch the awkward tie-ins
While the IOC remains optimistic that international spectators will be able to travel to China for the Winter Olympics, the delta variant might have other plans. In either case, though, ideally NBC will think better this time about sticking a tablet in an athlete's face moments after they've won gold, in order to conspicuously plug Microsoft Spaces.
The seemingly well-intentioned tie-in was supposed to connect athletes with their families abroad, but it led instead to exactly the sort of awkward moments you'd expect from having a video call broadcast to the entire world.
The Olympics are bigger than just America, so treat them like it.
Olympics coverage in America is going to focus on Americans: there's no way around it. But this isn't the Cold War anymore, and the narrative of American athletic exceptionalism is honestly embarrassing — not to mention that it leaves out some of the best stories of the Olympics. The fact that TikTok was the real winner of the 2021 Olympics is a testament to the fact that we're living in a global world, where people (and especially young people) are actually interested in what the Israeli men's baseball team is up to, or the Australian divers, or a Filipino skateboarder.
Some of the best and worst moments of the 2020 Olympics were cut because NBC was focusing on covering Americans in the marquee sports of swimming, gymnastics, and track and field. It's time to rethink that approach.
Let the people post!
Like the Tokyo Olympics, the Olympics in Beijing will be difficult to watch live if you're not someone who's typically awake at 4 a.m. ET. Most people, then, are experiencing the Olympics in replays.
But NBC is "very intense" about not allowing its intellectual property to be shared on social media, as Ian Gunther, a member of the U.S. men's gymnastics team, told The Washington Post. Users both in Tokyo and at home who have posted clips or photos of the competitions have seen them swiftly taken down.
In practice, this has meant users have had to go elsewhere to find shareable clips of Olympic moments (to watch the viral Horse That Wouldn't Jump on Friday, for example, fans had to rely on an Australian broadcaster's clip circulating on social media since it wasn't shared by the official NBC account). But these kinds of social media interactions have become an enormous part of how people enjoy the Games together, and trying to crack down on that only stifles the excitement and conversation that would redound to NBC's benefit.
Obviously NBC won't just give away all its coverage for free (it has Peacock to promote, after all). But cutting its fans a little slack would be a place to start. Everyone has the same goal here, after all: We just want to watch the Games.