2016 Summer Olympics: NBC’s Bob Costas, Mary Carillo and Jim Bell Preview the Games
I get ridiculously excited about the Olympics every time they roll around. I’m not athletic at all, but there’s something so thrilling about watching these elite athletes perform. AndÂ it’s so much fun to get to know their stories. I also love to watch the pieces the correspondents do to help us get to know the host city as well as various places in the country.
Now, we all know this installment of the games is problematic. The country is in upheaval, the city doesn’t seem quite prepared and after watching Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel “Lords of the Rings,” I’m conflicted about whether I should watch at all. But I really do want to keep this positive because I think the athletes deserve the spotlight and I know the people bringing us 260.5 hours of broadcast coverage are working so hard to give us a great show.
NBC Olympics EP Jim Bell, primetime host Bob Costas and correspondent Mary Carillo participated in this week’s Summer 2016 TCAs. They’ve been in Rio for a little while, but they took some time to weigh in on some big controversies, the IOC, which storylines they and viewers might find most compelling, why we’re so invested in the disaster narrative and more.
Jim Bell:Â Question for each of you.Â A particular athlete story or team storyline you’re looking forward to?Â Bob?
Bob Costas: “Well, gymnastics, I think, in this case could yield not just its usual exciting competitionÂ â€‘â€‘ Americans seem to be drawn to that â€‘â€‘ but the people who are real experts tell us that when these Games are over, if Simone Biles of the UnitedÂ States delivers her A game, she will be, by acclamation, the greatest allâ€‘round female gymnast of all time.
And at the same time, Kohei Uchimura of Japan, who already has Olympic success under his belt â€‘â€‘ he’s more of a veteran â€‘â€‘ but if he maxes out among the male gymnasts, then he’ll leave Rio with the same designation, as the greatest allâ€‘round male gymnast ever.
And obviously Michael Phelps is already the greatest swimmer in Olympic history.Â Usain Bolt is already the greatest sprinter in Olympic history and they’re trying to add to what they already have done, so we’re talking about Mount Rushmore-type stuff.”
Mary Carillo: “If Simone were about a foot taller, she could win every Olympic event here. I mean, she is the most dynamic, talented, ambitious, propulsive athlete I think I’ve ever seen.
So obviously, women’s gymnastics is a big story and Katie Ledecky was a tremendous story. In London she was only 15 when she won gold there. And four years later, she can win a fistful of golds.
So we’ve got the young kids and then we’ve got the veterans, to your point, and then we’ve got all these dynasties, especially the dynastic qualities of the American women here in soccer, in basketball, in gymnastics, in swimming. I think it’s going to be â€‘â€‘ I’m not just saying this because I’m a woman, but I think a lot of tremendous women stories are going to come out of Rio.”
Bob: “And one more note, beach volleyball has been, ever since its inception in 1996 in Atlanta, among the most popular television sports with American audiences, and of course, Kerri Walsh Jennings is â€‘â€‘”
Mary: “Another veteran.”
Bob: “â€‘â€‘ a boldface Olympic name, but Americans ought to realize that along with soccer, volleyball, even beginning in the days of indoor volleyball, where 90,000 people once watched a Brazilian match against the old Soviet Union, beach volleyball is immensely popular in Brazil and they are the primary competitors. In fact, the mayor joked with me yesterday. He said, ‘Kerri’s gonna have to settle for a silver medal because we’re going to win the gold this time.’
So the beach volleyball taking place on Copacabana Beach, where people will be in a highâ€‘spirited frame of mind to begin with, but it’s coupled with the idea that the likelihood is that the Brazilians and the Americans are on a collision course headed for the gold medal games.”
Mary: “Kerri Walsh Jennings, she’s got three gold medals.Â She’s had four shoulder surgeries and she’s still the favorite to come good.”
Bob, I wanted to ask you. It was obvious here. You’ve seen tremendous changes in what Americans are most interested in in the Olympics. You remember back when it was all track and field and we never would have dreamed our biggest interest would be swimming and gymnastics and beach volleyball. So just talk about â€‘â€‘ because you get the highâ€‘interest ones in primetimeÂ â€‘â€‘ what have you seen as the changes in Americans’ interest over the years?
Bob: “Well, one thing that’s happened â€‘â€‘ and this may be an indirect answer to that question â€‘â€‘ is with all the additional NBC platforms and the digital capabilities and the 6,700 hours and the live streaming, whatever your interest is, even if it’s in a niche sport, you can find it. So every interest is being served, and sometimes in the course of that, you make new fans.
At the Winter Olympics, curling becomes somehow, outside Canada, a sport that people, at least for those two and a half weeks, are obsessed with in South Dakota or in Timbuktu.So I guess it’s created fans or followings for niche sports as well.
But I think you hit upon, really, the heart of what we concentrate on in primetime, which is track and field, swimming, gymnastics, beach volleyball, a little bit of indoor volleyball, divingÂ â€‘â€‘ platform diving is especially popular.
We’ll show the gold medal basketball game, which we anticipate that the Americans will be in and we’ll show little bits and pieces of other moments that are exciting or touching or interesting or poignant, but those half-dozen really make up the core of what the largest number of Americans want to see.”
Guys, the preâ€‘Olympics disaster narrative is one that we like telling. I remember all of the “Oh, God. Sochi is going to be a horrible disaster.” And then, ultimately, the Games started and we didn’t talk about it as much. I’m wondering, if you guys had to guess, do you think that we are still going to be talking about Zikaâ€‘polluted water, etc., in 10 days, or do you think this too will pass?
Jim: “I think, hopefully, the latter.Â That’s our hope. I mean, we are here to cover the Olympics and generally speaking, you are right.Â It is not a new narrative.Â Heading into virtually every Olympics, that is the storyline coming in.Â And then the athletes get here.Â The energy arrives.Â The torch gets lit.Â And for 17 days and nights, that’s what we are focused on.Â
But should it be a story while we are here if there is something away from the competition that becomes a story?Â We’ll cover it.Â We were fortunate in Sochi, with a lot of the concerns heading into those Games, that that really wasn’t a story during the games and the same is true with London and every Olympics that, really, we’ve had in my time here, which goes back to 1992 in Barcelona.”
Bob: “Although we have our fingers crossed that there won’t be a security issue, and something like Zika, the outcome of that is something you’d have to track months down the road because, even if someone is infected, the outcome of that wouldn’t necessarily be apparent during the 2 1/2 to 3 weeks that we are televising the Olympics.
But one thing for certain, every bit of competition that takes place on open water, marathon swimming, sailing, you’ve got to talk about the condition of the water.Â These athletes are dealing with it and in some cases, the best they’ve been told is ‘Try to keep your mouth closed.’Â That’s rather difficult when you are swimming even in your backyard pool, let alone in open water, or ‘Don’t put your head under the water.’Â So I guess some new techniques will be required.Â
I’m not trying to be facetious here, but it’s going to be impossible in some cases not to address some of the issues that have come up before the Olympics, because they will directly intersect with the competition.Â But what Jim saidÂ â€‘â€‘”
Jim: “And in fairness to the host, they have had multiple test events hereÂ â€‘â€‘ sailing, marathon swimming, triathlonÂ â€‘â€‘ and there have been zero problems thus far.Â But, yes, that is part of the storyline at those events, and hopefully, as has been the case at literally dozens of test events on the water, they’ve found a way to keep it safe.”
Mary: “I’m actually covering with the great Rowdy Gaines, the openâ€‘water swimming, the men’s and women’s for a couple of days, the second week, I guess, the 15th and the 16th, and so what do I know from open waters for me?”
Bob: “Do you plan to take a dip yourself?”
Mary: “Absolutely not, butÂ â€‘â€‘ so I’ve been asking our researchers and everything, ‘What is that water going to be like for these guys?’ In LondonÂ â€‘â€‘ and the event is only a couple of Olympics old. In London, these guys are telling me they swam in Hyde Park, which wasÂ â€‘â€‘ there’s a lot of geese in Hyde Park. Let me just say that.”
Mary: “So there were a lot of goose droppings in that water.Â These guys are trying to explain to me that Hyde Park was worse than what Guanabara is going to be for the swimmers.Â And they are in a part of the bay that’s cleaner than where the sailing is going on.”
Jim: “We shall see and we shall cover it as appropriate.”
NBC accounts for about a fifth of all of the revenue that the IOC gets from the Olympics.Â Given that if something bad happens, if guests are the victim of violent crime, if Zika spreads back to places where it doesn’t exist already, if a swimmer or sailor gets MRSA, do you guys bear some responsibility for that?<
Jim: “I don’t think so.”
You are not the just the broadcast partner.Â It’s â€‘â€‘
Bob: “I think part of the answer to that is the Olympics were going to happen.Â You can make an argument.Â I don’t know if it would be a persuasive argument.Â You can make an argumentÂ â€‘â€‘ it has been madeÂ â€‘â€‘ that the IOC should haveÂ â€‘â€‘ in light of the problems as they emerged several months ago, should have considered either moving or postponing the Games.Â You could make that argument.Â
But, once the Games were being held, the network that owned the rights to televise those Games was going to televise those Games, and then, the question about our responsibility becomes how thoroughly and credibly do we cover it.Â And we plan to not just acknowledge but frame all of these issues before the Games begins and if and when they impact the Games as they unfold, it would certainly be my expectation that we would not shy away from that both as NBC Sports and Olympics and NBC News and the full force of NBC News led by Lester Holt and the Today show and whatnot is here as well.
But, as an important financial partner, could you have leveraged your influence with the IOC to get them to move the Games or do more?Â
Bob: “I’m not dodging that question. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer it because I don’t run that part of NBC.”
Jim: “Yeah.Â And I don’t think so.Â I mean, look, we live in a world where there are going to be issues wherever you are going to have the Games.Â Right now I think you could probably make the case that Zika is a bigger story in Florida than in Brazil or certainly in Rio where it is technically winter and much cooler and drier.Â Is Disneyland responsible for bringing people to Florida now?”
Bob: “I don’t know if this answers your question.Â I hope it does in part.Â We plan to have an extensive interview with Thomas Bach, the head of the IOC.Â Every question that is relevant about the IOC’s handling and approach to these Olympics, the Olympics in general, the Olympics going forward, the Olympics intersection with authoritarian regimes like Russia and China, the economic challenges that the Olympics may pose in the future, the security challenges, I will put every one of those questions to Thomas Bach, the head of the IOC.Â We’ll see what happens.”
Do you think that the negative narrative that’s been preceding these Olympics is going to affect the American enthusiasm for watching the Olympics?Â Do you have any perception of how it’s affecting our interest in the Olympics?
Jim: “I don’t think it’s having a negative impact onÂ â€‘â€‘ from what we’ve been able to determine, our research team, as far as awareness that the Olympics are here and the intent to watch and perhaps maybe even to the contrary.Â Those numbers are as high as they’ve ever been, even a little bit higher than they were heading into London.”
Jim, you talked before about how this is going to be the most live Olympics ever.Â NBCUniversal has spent a lot of money for these Games.Â Do you have any say in which events are scheduled during primetime or are you completely at the mercy of the IOC?
Jim: “The scheduling of the events is an IOC matter.Â We might have some preferences and I think sometimes things break our way and sometimes they don’t.Â But, at the end of the day, it falls to the IOC to schedule the events.”
Following up on that a little bit, the time when Rio was announced as the host, obviously, it was a fortuitous time zone for the East Coast in particular but even the West Coast compared to previous Olympics.Â People were really excited, more live coverage, but you’ve already said you are going to slightly tapeâ€‘delay the opening ceremonies to add more coverage and move things around.Â How are you seeing that balance of live and pre-taped in your primetime block, which you historically sort of micromanage more than simply live broadcasting what’s going on at that time?Â
Jim: “If Â you are asking about primetime, I think, as Bob had mentioned earlier, referenced some of those sports, it will be anchored each night by live swimming the first week and live track and field the second week.
There will be live beach volleyball throughout, and, then, all of the gymnastics will be on tape as will some of the diving.Â So we’ve got a mix in primetime but, again, every night really anchored by those sports of swimming and track and field.Â I’m not sure if there was a question about the opening ceremony.Â I don’t think there was, but if there was, I’ll stop and let you ask it.”
Can you expand just a little bit more about the West Coast?Â Will that be, any of that, live, or is that all just going to be taped from the East Coast version?
Jim: “In primetime, it will be in pattern and so tape of an East Coast version; but as we did in London, started in London.Â The genie is out of the bottle.Â So this is the way it is for fans of the Olympics or fans of a particular team or a particular sport.Â
If you are on the West Coast and you want to watch it live, you can stream it live and what we’ve found is that people who stream tend to actually watch more television rather than having it cannibalize the audience.Â So we are all for people consuming the Olympics as much as possible on as many devices as possible and whenever they want.”
Jim, I was wondering, given all of the hours of programming that you are going to have on all of these different platforms, how is the audience supposed to figure out how to consume all of this?Â I mean, what’s the road map for how to get through all of this material that you are going to be presenting to people?
Jim: “I have no idea.Â Good luck.”
Jim: “Well, I think your best bet would be to start at NBCOlympics.com as a channel guide.Â And if you go to the website, if you download the Olympics app, I promise you’ll find it and figure it out and it will be pretty darn painless.”
Edited for space and content.
TheÂ 2016 Summer OlympicsÂ begins airing Friday, August 5th on NBC.
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