It’s time, NBC. Actually, long past time.
I mean, I’ll give you credit. You’ve moved the Olympics into new media, seeing growth and letting everyone finally see North Korea play China in table tennis. You let BuzzFeed manage your Snapchat channel (though we have to wonder if the benefit of that is mainly in the fact that writers and analysts will just say that phrase).
But you’re behind on one thing, and it’s not your weird adherence to those soupy, gauzy taped pieces that are meant to make us care about an otherwise obscure athlete. (Sure, I need to learn about the athletes, but the narratives feel forced. We know they’ve been training and sacrificing since they were six, but with some notable exceptions—the team of literal refugees, for example—your “against the odds” stories run square into our knowledge of their genetic gifts, years of elite, high-priced coaching, and, finally, some share of the profits.)
What’s the one thing? Well, let’s set the context here.
As we began these Games, the dominant theme was that these were the “Title IX” Olympics, with more women athletes, and medal contenders, than ever before among the American athletes. Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky were the new face of Team USA, taking the baton from not-yet-retired Michael Phelps. It was a new day.
But the new day was full of old voices. From Bob Costas to badminton, the primary voice narrating the action was almost always a man. What’s up with that?
Even for coverage of a sport where women dominated the story, the two dominant voices were male. Al Trautwig is a yeoman stalwart of sports broadcasting, but it’s not like he adds anything special to gymnastics play by play (he’s so generic, uh, versatile a broadcaster, he doubles up and does triathlon, as well). And Tim Daggett is a proud Olympian (from long ago, when they literally scored the sport differently and before the fall of the Iron Curtain) but is a little too proud of an American, offering jingoistic reviews of American performances without much technical insight into a sport almost none of us truly understand. Nastia Liukin seems to have strong potential and also competed in the 21st century, but was largely gracing the margins of the coverage (and, oh, also, was told to dumb down her gymnastics coverage). Make her primary and bring Michele Tafoya from poolside and give her the play-by-play job here.
Swimming’s broadcasting team is strong, featuring good chemistry and a bona fide American swimming hero in Rowdy Gaines, but Dara Torres is an experienced broadcaster and a five-time Olympian. Can’t she tell us why Katie Ledecky is lapping the field just as capably as Rowdy?
Let’s go over to Olympics Stadium for track and field. Below Usain Bolt’s history-making excellence, the best stories are shared equally by the charming Allyson Felix and the repeat-gold medalist Ashton Eaton. But in the booth? All men. Did Jackie-Joyner Kersee fail the camera test or did you ever call her?
And on it goes. Sure, some of the color commentators were women, even at men’s events, but, unless we missed one, other than Andrea Joyce on rhythmic gymnastics, the play-by-play and main narration was a man.
NBC properly touts how the Olympics bring in more women viewers than any other sporting event. Women make up 55 percent of the viewing audience. Pick your theory as to why: that it’s more about country than individual, that there is a greater variety of sports involved, that it’s on every freakin’ night so it’s harder to avoid, whatever. But 55 percent sounds less impressive when you realize you’re comparing it to events such as the NFL or Major League Baseball, in which all of the participants are male. At the Olympics, more than half the American team is women, more than half the viewers are women and yet the vast majority of on-air talent is men.
Much of the post-event coverage has noted that ratings on linear TV were down, while ratings online were up. Much digital ink has been, and will be, spilled on why that is, including the obvious tectonic shifts in our media consumption. But one thing that remains is that millions more actual people tune into the one big show at night (that number is trending down, sure, but is still mammoth in raw numbers).
At its best, sports are one of the rare moments of real community for us as Americans and global citizens. As we consume more and more custom content on our phones, watching a live event with an uncertain ending is a chance for us all to share something together. And now that this moment is one that shows how America has grown into a place where women can share the spotlight equally with men, wouldn’t it be great if women could have the opportunity to narrate the moment of glory?