TV viewers will experience an Olympics like no other

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Most broadcasters reporting on the upcoming Tokyo Games will have something in common with TV viewers: They'll be watching the action from thousands of miles away.

Of the more than 175 commentators assigned to cover the competition for NBC, roughly the same number who were in Rio for the 2016 Olympics, only 75 will actually be in Japan. The rest will conduct interviews, offer play-by-play analysis and try to capture the excitement without ever having to pull out their passports.

It's not as daunting as it sounds.

NBC Sports reporter Randy Moss, a Minnesota resident since 2008, made it to London for the 2012 Games. But he spent most of his airtime working out of a studio outside the sporting venues, relying on a bank of TV monitors to keep him up to date on several events at once.

"At one point I thought I could actually be doing this from my living room in Prior Lake — and much more cheaply," said Moss, who is not to be confused with the former Viking.

This time around, Moss will cover equestrian events from a Connecticut studio. His colleague Kerith Burke will report out of Universal Resorts in Orlando, where NBC and the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee are throwing a two-week viewing party for families of American athletes.

"We're hoping for some spontaneous chants of 'USA! USA!,' " said executive producer Molly Solomon, who will supervise more than 7,000 hours of coverage on various NBC platforms, including Peacock, CNBC and the USA Network.

When U.S. athletes win medals, NBC hopes to connect them immediately via satellite with family members and friends, some of whom are going the extra mile to show their support.

The network will pop in on the father of BMX world champion Hannah Roberts, who has set up a giant screen in an outdoor park in Buchanan, Mich., and crash a sleepover for young gymnasts at Simone Biles' home gym in Texas.

Expect a smaller-scale version of that kind of coverage on KARE 11. The Twin Cities NBC affiliate isn't sending staff to the Games, as it has in past years.

"Due to COVID protocols, we recently made the decision to stay in the U.S. and continue our coverage in our local communities," said Larry Delia, senior vice president of media operations for TEGNA, which owns KARE. "We're focusing on all of the human-interest stories related to the athletes, and watching along with their families and communities during the competition."

Minnesota resident Michele Tafoya, who started covering the Olympics in 1998, is one of the NBC personalities who made it to Japan. She's well aware she won't have the access she usually enjoys.

"It's a weird feeling," she said a few days before boarding a plane. "I'm usually fired up. But this one is weird. We're going into the unknown."

One thing is certain: Tafoya, best known for roaming the sidelines during NFL games, won't be wandering around Tokyo.

Visiting press is not expected to get clearance to go anywhere other than the sporting venues. That means a lot of time chilling in the room.

Long-distance runner Kara Goucher, who is attending her first Olympics as a broadcaster, is packing items like a deflated Swiss ball so she can work out in her room; the hotel gym won't be open to guests.

"This will be the longest stretch I've gone without running except for when I've had a major injury," said the part-time Minnesotan, who first visited Japan when she was a student at Duluth East High School. "It's just a little personal challenge."

The bigger test will be doing her job while following strict rules. Reporters won't be able to get within 6 feet of athletes during interviews. At times, they'll also have to wear masks while broadcasting from events.

"That could be awkward," Goucher said.

But the obstacles will also open up new TV experiences. Because of the lack of spectators, viewers will get a chance to hear new sounds, from splashing in the pool to intimate conversations between rivals.

Solomon said viewers responded positively to coverage of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Games that allowed you to hear Lindsey Vonn breathing in the start house as she prepared for her ski runs.

"It was incredibly dramatic," Solomon said. "We plan to access those kind of sounds and moments in Tokyo."

NBC won't sweeten the audio with artificial crowd noise, which networks did for the Australian Open tennis tournament and NFL games last season, but it will carry the sounds that Olympics organizers plan to pipe in at venues to make athletes more comfortable.

After all, nothing beats actual spectators.

"Part of the broadcaster's job is to recognize the enthusiasm of the crowd and act accordingly," said Scott Ackerson, who served as executive vice president at Fox Sports before retiring in 2015. "That energy isn't going to be there, at least not organically. But you do the best you can."

Ackerson believes NBC may have bigger issues to deal with than the restrictions.

The Olympics may be catering to TV viewers like never before, but that doesn't guarantee Americans will tune in.

"I'll be shocked if they have 20 percent of the audience they had in Rio [at the 2016 Summer Games]. There's no buzz," said Ackerson, pointing to a lack of high-profile rivalries and the time-zone difference, with events in Tokyo happening while most U.S. viewers are sleeping.

Some won't even be able to see the Games, because of an ongoing battle between Mediacom — the country's fifth largest cable provider — and NBC. Subscribers to Mediacom, including residents of Chanhassen and Savage, haven't been able to get NBC programming since the start of the year.

Despite the snags, Moss said he'll have no problem getting into the spirit — even if Connecticut isn't exactly known for its sushi.

"It's still the Olympics," he said. "The quality is not going to change. It's still about the old-fashioned thrill of victory and agony of defeat."

@nealjustin • 612-673-7431

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