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NBCUniversal wrestles with pandemic’s effect on broadcasting the Tokyo Olympics

NBCU execs are wrestling with what could be their biggest sports challenge yet: the Quiet Olympics.

Broadcasting and streaming the Tokyo Summer Games already had a high degree of difficulty due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Then Japan declared a state of emergency late last week, and banned live crowds, adding all kinds of new hurdles to the massive production slated to kick off July 23. Will the events seem as powerful and captivating without the roar of the crowd? Can sportscasters communicate the spirit and substance of the games without the hoopla fans have come to expect?

NBC’s top sports exec insists they can.

“We’re confident that the viewer at home won’t notice a difference,” says Pete Bevacqua, chairman of NBC Sports, in emailed responses to queries. “In order to compensate for no international spectators, our production team has worked for months on an elaborate plan that will allow us to bring those moments between families and Olympians together.”

He adds: “We’ll have cameras in U.S. homes to gather reactions and then connect athletes with their families to share those special interactions.”

At present, the company has not released any details about whether it plans to adopt other techniques networks have used to boost sports amid the pandemic, like taped crowd noise.

NBCUniversal, and its corporate parent, Comcast, still hope to leverage the athletic extravaganza to drive new parts of its business, particularly Peacock, the company’s nascent streaming-video outlet. It’s no secret the company wants to lure more consumers to the service’s premium tiers, which require a monthly fee. Already, NBC plans to load Peacock with hours of trial programming, including streams of some of the Olympics’ most popular events — gymnastics, men’s basketball — as well as other experimental fare.

Amber Ruffin, the late-night host, will be on the ground in Tokyo to offer commentary via Peacock, which will also feature “Tokyo Tonight,” a quick-turnaround highlights-and-interviews program, led by two popular former ESPN anchors, Cari Champion and Kenny Mayne. Another program, “On Her Turf,” will focus on women’s sports at the Olympics and be anchored by Lindsay Czarniak, Lolo Jones and MJ Acosta-Ruiz. Viewers will see other kinds of innovation, including 4K HDR primetime broadcasts in select markets; real-time data for beach volleyball and track-and-field events; and even the addition of MSNBC stats guru Steve Kornacki to certain proceedings.

There’s a lot more at stake than another salvo in Hollywood’s streaming wars. NBCU and Comcast paid $4.4 billion for a rights deal to broadcast the Olympics in the U.S. through 2020, and have agreed to pay $7.75 billion for broadcast rights to the Olympic Games between 2021 and 2032.

NBCU may have reason to be optimistic despite all the challenges. Its Rio Summer Olympics in 2016 faced a cloudy outlook due to the emergence of the Zika virus around Brazil. The company earned approximately $250 million in profit from its coverage.

Executives are betting the Olympics remain a unique enough prospect that they will generate consumer and Madison Avenue support to ride over any bumps ahead. “The Olympics are an integral part of our business. Along with the NFL, they are the most valuable content in media and deliver what nothing else can — an aggregated, diverse and uniquely massive audience sustained for several weeks,” notes Bevacqua, adding: “In a world of media fragmentation, there are very few places to go for massive scale and reach.”

But no one signed up for an Olympics quite like this. The games were originally supposed to have taken place in 2020 and were delayed by a year due to the first wave of the pandemic. NBCU had negotiated more than $1.25 billion in ad deals for last year’s broadcast, then had to work with sponsors in hopes they’d transfer that support to 2021. The company has said it expects the Tokyo broadcasts to generate more ad dollars than its Rio coverage.

One sports industry observer believes TV fans want the games, not endless agonizing over the lack of pageantry. “Sports fans — especially casual ones — are most interested in watching sports and may be disinclined to allocate a lot of time if the coverage spends too much time on the pandemic or other political or social issues rather than the storytelling,” says David Carter, principal of Sports Business Group, an industry consultant. “Just because sports is no longer the escape it once was doesn’t mean that the risk of alienating viewers has been fully mitigated.”

While the present task may be daunting, there’s also reason to keep one eye on the future. In less than a year, NBC Sports will also present the next Super Bowl broadcast amid its coverage of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. Once the current spectacle subsides, NBCU executives must focus on the next two. Variety

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