When sports resumed during the pandemic last year, fans quickly realized some general truths about what makes for an appealing broadcast. Even though television is, of course, a visual medium first and foremost, audio of what a venue sounds like makes an enormous difference.
And while it was welcome, and perhaps even cathartic, to see our favorite athletes performing again, watching them in an arena devoid of fans was nowhere near satisfying.
The NBA bubble in Orlando featured an extremely high level of play, but it was a terrible television product. The lack of fans and crowd noise gave playoff games all the ambiance of a random summer league game in Las Vegas, and the cratered television ratings reflected as much.
Which brings us to the quandary NBCUniversal is facing with the opening ceremonies for the Tokyo Olympics coming up Friday. NBC has more than 7,000 hours of coverage scheduled across its variety of networks from July 23 to the Games’ conclusion Aug. 8.
Typically, the Summer Olympics deliver enormous television ratings: The 2016 Games in Brazil averaged 27.5 million viewers across NBC’s platforms. The 2012 Games in London averaged 31 million viewers, while the 2008 Beijing Olympics delivered an average of 27 million.
NBC and the International Olympic Committee agreed to a $7.75 billion rights deal in 2014 that will keep the Olympics on NBC through 2032. Given the eight-figure viewership numbers, one would be hard-pressed to find a sports television executive who would suggest the price tag is too steep, at least under normal circumstances.
But NBC has to be sweating what viewership numbers for Tokyo will look like. Fans will not be allowed in the venues because of COVID-19 outbreaks in Japan. Potential viewers in the United States aren’t going to be naïve about what broadcasts without fans and natural noise will look and sound like. It’s a less entertaining product.
Molly Solomon, who is producing her 10th Olympics for NBC, explained during a call with reporters this past week how the network will try to make up for that during broadcasts.
“We understand the decision of the Japanese government for there to be no fans,’' she said, “but of course we wish the fans of the world had an opportunity to cheer on their athletes in person.
“That being said, NBC and OBS — which is the Olympic Broadcasting Service, which produces the world feed — we’ve been preparing for this potential outcome for some time. We’ve created sound-design plans with this in mind. We believe there’s an opportunity to bring viewers closer to the action than ever. And with sports like swimming, gymnastics, track, basketball, beach volleyball, you’re going to hear the sounds of the games like you’ve never heard them before — from the thrashing and splashing in the pool to those intimate conversations between competitors and coaches.”
Solomon cited an example from the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang of how the network hopes to utilize distinctive audio.
“When you look back at the downhill, the women’s downhill and the super G races . . . we showcased Lindsey Vonn in that start house, and viewers could very clearly hear her breathing as she prepared for her runs,’' said Solomon. “It was incredibly dramatic, and we plan to access those kinds of sounds and moments in Tokyo.”
She said that during competitions, there may be some in-arena ambient crowd noise to generate atmosphere for the athletes, and it will be audible on NBC’s broadcasts. But Solomon emphasized that NBC won’t be adding inauthentic audio beyond what’s heard in the venues.
“We are not going to layer on top of that swells of applause or anything like that,’' she said. “At the Olympics, there’s 339 distinct events, all of which have a really different cadence and pace, which makes it impossible to be authentic and reflect the spirit and sound of what’s happening now.
“So instead we’ve pivoted to know that we’ve got access to all of these fields-of-play microphones. So, we really feel like we can enhance the sounds of the Games. But you will also hear any crowd presence that is actually being injected into the venue. You’ll hear it as the athletes hear it.”