NBC Sports play-by-play announcers will not attend Winter Olympics in Beijing

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A visitor to the Shougang Park walks past the a sculpture for the Beijing Winter Olympics in Beijing, China, Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021. China on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021, threatened to take "firm countermeasures" if the U.S. proceeds with a diplomatic boycott of February's Beijing Winter Olympic Games. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
A visitor to the Shougang Park walks past a sculpture for the Winter Olympics in Beijing in November. (Ng Han Guan / Associated Press)

COVID-19 protocols will keep NBC Sports' play-by-play teams from reporting on the scene at the Winter Olympic games in Beijing next month.

Greg Hughes, senior vice president of communications for the NBC Sports Group, said Wednesday that the announcing teams will be based at the sports division's studios in Stamford, Conn., rather than subject them to the risk of contracting the Omicron variant of the coronavirus that has been on the rise in China.

The pageantry of the Olympics being held in a far-flung location is part of the allure for viewers, and not having announcers on the scene could detract from that atmosphere.

But Hughes said viewers may not notice the difference as announcing teams for various major sports have been working remotely since the middle of 2020, when live action resumed in stadiums and arenas throughout the U.S. following a pause for the pandemic.

"Technology allows for this and we’ve learned and adapted," he said. "The viewer experience will be the same as it would have been otherwise, at a very high level."

While NBC faced COVID-19 challenges deploying teams to Tokyo for the Summer Olympics in 2021, commentators — including former Olympian Michael Phelps and "Today" show talent Hoda Kotb — were in Japan for major events such as gymnastics and swimming.

But all other sports were covered from Stamford.

The Games in Beijing are already fraught as the U.S. has declared a diplomatic boycott of the event to protest China's human rights abuses. Athletes have been warned about speaking up on human rights issues while in China for their own safety.

Having announcers call an event without being in the stadium or arena became a common practice for sports TV networks even before the pandemic hit. NBC Sports had play-by-play teams in its New York studios calling events for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

NBC Sports planned to send three teams to Beijing to cover the Winter Games, which run from Feb. 4-20.

But with the higher sensitivity of coronavirus testing in China, the likelihood of positive outcomes are high, potentially putting announcing teams out of commission once they were in the country. NBC is still sending several hundred technical and support staff to the games.

Some familiar on-air names will be on location.

Mike Tirico, the lead host of the Olympics, will be in Beijing for some portion of the Winter Games, but is returning to the U.S. for NBC's coverage of Super Bowl LVI, being played Feb. 13 in Los Angeles. Craig Melvin, the news anchor for NBC's "Today," will be reporting from Beijing for at least a week.

Other personalities were already scheduled to work remotely, including studio host Maria Taylor and "Today" co-host Savannah Guthrie, who will handle commentary during the opening ceremonies. Both will be working out of NBC's New York studios.

The Olympic Games have long been a cornerstone of NBCUniversal business.

In 2014, the media company committed $12 billion to extend its partnership with the International Olympic Committee through 2032.

Every two years, NBCUniversal has used its 17 days of Olympics coverage to showcase its sports division and forge relationships with key advertisers, pay-TV distributors and millions of viewers.

Its Olympics telecasts typically crush the competition in the ratings. However, massive audiences have become less of a sure thing due to a fractured TV landscape, competition from streaming services and fewer marquee athletes.

Ratings typically rise and fall based on the strength of the performance of the U.S. athletes, and NBC does better when it has big-name athletes to promote.

NBCUniversal is also hoping to use the Beijing Games to help redefine how the audience is counted. The company has contracted with research firm iSpot.tv to provide data that will combine the number of viewers watching on traditional TV and steaming platforms, including Peacock, which will carry every event shown on NBC's cable and broadcast networks.

NBCUniversal also has used the past two Games to market its 18-month-old Peacock service as the place to watch hours of coverage of individual sports. The company plans to live stream events on its $4.99-a-month streaming service.

Times Staff Writers Meg James, Nathan Fenno and Helene Elliott in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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