Sochi's Buzz Problem: Pinkeye and Awkward Interviews Outshine Athletes

 

This story first appeared in the Feb. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Bob Costas' crippling pinkeye won't win any gold medals, but it has emerged as the star of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Through the first 11 days of NBC's coverage, Sochi had yet to produce a breakout personality. The biggest stories were the anchor's weeklong conjunctivitis-induced absence, pinch hitters Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira and, most embarrassingly for the network, alpine skier Bode Miller crying after being prodded about his dead brother by correspondent Christin Cooper. NBC's solid viewership has shown signs of fatigue, lagging 11 percent behind Vancouver in 2010 for the past 11 days and dipping below the similarly time-delayed 2006 Turin Games on Feb. 15.

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"It's been very underwhelming, for sure," says Patrick Rishe, director of sports consulting firm Sportsimpacts, adding, "The lack of really dramatic American performances is a big part of it." Two blows to NBC's coverage have been the scarcity of Winter Games stalwarts Lindsey Vonn and Shaun White. Replacing them, says Rishe, is no easy task: "Sometimes it's just the dynamic of the sport. Gabby Douglas broke out in London, but the difference there is that gymnasts stay front and center [with events] for the majority of the games."

NBC Olympics executive producer Jim Bell, who has been more accessible to reporters during Sochi than during his first go in London, tells THR he is pleased with the network's overall performance: "Would it be nice to have another gold medal here or there? Sure, but that's always the case in any Olympics." Bell would not connect Costas' absence to ratings dips (Vieira hosted the first night to dip below Turin), though the anchor's Feb. 17 return (and a gold medal for U.S. ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White) brought Sochi's first nightly ratings advantage over Vancouver. "It's like your team takes the field for a big game -- you want to be able to do your part of it," says Costas. "That was my frustration."

To be sure, NBC has plenty to be happy about. Across TV and digital platforms, NBC Sports put total Olympics viewership through the first week at 151 million, a record. For NBC Sports Network, the first Winter Games since its 2012 launch has been a blessing. The Feb. 15 U.S. men's hockey victory over Russia ranks as the network's most watched (4.1 million viewers) and most streamed (600,000 unique users) game for the sport. "My sense is that when we're finished, with NBC Sports Network, the broadcast network, streaming and all of the various portals, the audience is much larger than what we're hearing about now," says former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson, whose Winter Games roots date to 1994. "I think the numbers are quite respectable."

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But it's more than just a question of ratings. NBC has been criticized for focusing on athletes' personal tragedies. In addition to the Miller exchange, Vieira discussed a miscarriage with skeleton silver medalist Noelle Pikus-Pace, and reporter Lewis Johnson probed Pikus-Pace's teammate Katie Uhlaender about her dead father. A Salt Lake Tribune reporter began a formal tally of NBC segments focusing on dead relatives and found the network was averaging three a day.

Further, NBC's Today lost the ratings battle with ABC's Good Morning America on the first Olympic Tuesday, an anomaly that has overshadowed other victories. Financials also are tight. Spending $775 million for Sochi broadcast rights, NBC is expected to turn a profit from the Games. But NBC Sports Group chairman Mark Lazarus, who told reporters there still was ad inventory available at a premium, declined comment on what the total haul might be: "We are north of $800 million, and until we are done, that is the number we are going with."

Men's hockey forward T. J. Oshie was a hero for a day after his game-clinching shootout goal against Russia, and hockey could prove an even bigger draw if the U.S. faces reigning champ Canada in the semifinals or Russia in the final. But figure skating remains Sochi's best hope for a smash. Gracie Gold is America's last bid for stardom.

If a new star doesn't emerge, NBC plans to wheel out old ones. A documentary about skater Nancy Kerrigan's 1994 clubbing at the hands of Tonya Harding's then-husband boasts Kerrigan's first sit-down interview about the topic. NBC will air it before the Closing Ceremony, hoping to end the Olympics with a ratings bang.

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