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Can an Olympic games without any fans in attendance make for must-see TV? It’s a question NBC executives are surely asking themselves after the Japanese government declared a new state of emergency in Tokyo on Thursday.
That declaration — spurred by a significant rise in COVID-19 cases in Tokyo and a lagging vaccination effort across Japan — means that the vast majority of Olympic events will not have any fans in the stands (some venues outside of Tokyo may have limited fans, on a case-by-case basis).
The issue for NBC and other Olympics broadcasters is informed by all the live events that have been held amid the pandemic. While sports remain the most popular programming on television, the excitement from a live crowd adds to the TV viewing experience, and without it, productions have to adapt accordingly to bring that same level of excitement to the screen.
“We’re disappointed that there won’t be spectators at the events, but we’ve long had plans for enhancing the viewing experience across our many platforms,” an NBC Sports spokesperson says. “We’ve had a lot of experience with events without spectators throughout the pandemic. Although unfortunate, this won’t diminish the incredible stories and achievements of the athletes from Team USA and around the world.”
While the decision to go without an audience comes just a few weeks before the games begin, it’s a scenario that executives have been planning for.
“What is not known yet is whether they [the Olympic organizers] will put crowd noise in, and how they will do potentially seat fillers, placards or whatever,” NBCUniversal chairman of television and streaming Mark Lazarus told The Hollywood Reporter at an Olympics press conference June 23, adding that they plan to “enhance the sound” to make for more compelling TV.
“Certainly when you have a full building, that excitement can come through on television,” Lazarus added. “I think we are fortunate to be in 2021, where you can use audio to build energy on television, and in buildings.”
Previous sporting events, from the NBA to the WWE, have used enhanced audio to bring more energy to their live broadcasts during the pandemic.
Still, the lack of fans in Tokyo will have an impact. Lazarus said the company was “very encouraged” by the initial plans to allow fans in the stadiums, and even discussed the possibility of bringing U.S. service members stationed in Japan to events to ensure Team USA would have a live crowd to cheer them on. Those plans now seem to be off the table, except perhaps for some of the limited events outside of Tokyo.
An executive at another broadcast network told THR ahead of this year’s upfronts that they were looking forward to U.S. sporting events once again having large live crowds, because of what the energy brings to the broadcasts.
Both NBC and the Olympic Broadcasting Services (also called OBS, it is the production company that serves as a broadcast pool for all TV rightsholders around the world) have also been preparing for other ways to adapt, particularly around the interactions between athletes and their families.
“We’ve been working on this for months, even before the news was announced that international fans would not be allowed to travel to Tokyo. It’s a pretty elaborate plan that we’re calling Friends and Family,” said Rob Hyland, the producer of NBC’s primetime Olympics show, adding that “we really want to bring those moments between families and the Olympians together.”
So NBC will ensure that there are cameras in the homes of family members and in venues in the U.S. to capture the live reactions from loved ones. “We’ll have cameras available like this available throughout the Games, and we’ll showcase these moments in every primetime show and in every platform,” Hyland added, noting that they could capture “a great, raw moment between a family member and their connection thousands of miles away.”
Meanwhile, the OBS has developed its own technology, according to a media guide distributed to TV rightsholders that THR has reviewed.
“To counterbalance the impact the global pandemic had on fan attendance for the Tokyo 2020 Games, OBS has created an innovative suite of digital fan engagement applications,” according to the media guide, which adds that the technology will give “overseas fans the opportunity to be present in some ways and cheer on their favourite athletes/teams.”
Those plans include an “online cheer map” and a “fan video wall” that will be made available to TV rightsholders, and which will also be accessible via the Olympics website.
“Furthermore, OBS will facilitate ‘Athlete Moments’, allowing athletes at selected venues to connect with their family and friends directly after their event,” according to the OBS media guide, though it was not entirely clear what those moments would consist of.
“For Tokyo 2020, in the absence of overseas fans, OBS quickly realised that we needed to think outside of the box, and consider new and innovative solutions to overcome this obstacle,” OBS CEO Yiannis Exarchos wrote in the media guide, adding that the technology it developed “will not only allow friends and family to engage with athletes within the venue, but also provide broadcasters with access to new engagement streams and interactive modules that will provide a wealth of content opportunities, while at the same time allowing fans all over the world to be actively involved in supporting their national heroes.”
Video walls at this point have become a pandemic TV staple (again, both the WWE and NBA used them last year), but they are no replacement for the energy of a real, live crowd. Still, NBC and the other Olympics broadcasters will need to adapt and find a way to create that energy and drama for viewers at home, to serve what is seen as pent-up demand.
“I think we’re in a place where the world is excited to come out and do things and cheer for things,” Lazarus said. “I think we’re seeing that in arenas around the country right now. I believe strongly that people are going to be excited about this, that people are waiting for things to happen.”
Updated 5:20 AM July 9 with an NBC Sports statement.
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