Our TV experts explain what's working (and not working) in NBC's Olympics coverage

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Tokyo, Japan, Tuesday, August 3, 2021 - USA gymnast Simone Biles competes Tokyo 2020 Olympics Women's Balance Beam Final at Ariake Gymnastics Centre. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)
Simone Biles competes in the women's balance beam final at the Tokyo Olympics on Tuesday. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Spoiler alert: Simone Biles won the bronze medal in balance beam at the Tokyo Olympics.

If you hoped to avoid that information heading into NBC's prime-time coverage Tuesday — and save yourself the early wake-up call to catch it live — you either failed, or spent the day hiking a distant mountain pass without cell or internet service. (Jealous!) Which left the network with a now-familiar predicament: How do you transform old news into compelling television?

The final event of the Games' biggest star, and the denouement of the story that's dominated the headlines coming out of Tokyo for more than a week, seemed like an ideal candidate for a closer look. So Times TV editor Matt Brennan, senior writer Greg Braxton and staff writer Tracy Brown, who've previously discussed the challenges facing this year's Olympic telecast and the controversies that have clouded this year's Games, came together to analyze Tuesday night's broadcast in real time. Here's their conversation:



Tracy Brown, staff writer: I have to come clean — I cheated on this assignment. After it was announced that Simone Biles would be competing in the beam finals, and checking what time the event would be taking place in real time (around 2 a.m. PT), I knew I needed to watch the livestream of the competition on NBCOlympics.com so I would not have to wake up to spoilers. Sleep be damned!

Honestly, it was worth it.

Just knowing that so much of the narrative around the Tokyo chapter of Biles' career was going to be shaped by both her performance and the overall results made the event a must-see. And watching it in real time was the only way to experience it while it was still unwritten.

This meant holding my breath all the way through Biles' and Sunisa Lee's routines through that rush of uncertainty and hope that keeps us tuning into live sports. It also meant being extra sensitive to the other gymnasts' wobbles and stuck landings (and being sympathetic to how nerve-racking it must be for the athletes awaiting their scores). The experience was just night and day compared with watching Jade Carey during the floor finals on NBC Monday night. As exciting as the routines themselves are, it's hard to feel any stakes when you already know how it ends. Plus, NBC didn't even show all the finalists' routines!

I'm curious to see how NBC will present these beam finals during its prime-time show because, like the floor finals, half the drama was waiting to see how everyone else performed.

Greg Braxton, senior writer: Mike Tirico told us at the top of the evening that there had just been an earthquake in Tokyo. These games have also had a pandemic, a typhoon and torrential rains. The only calamity left is Godzilla!

But I digress. Before turning to the event that everyone has been waiting for, NBC started its prime-time coverage with the final in ... wait for it ... the men's gymnastics high bar. That said, when Japan's Kitazono Takeru took two hard falls during his otherwise impressive routines, the event had my full attention: As an emblem of the Olympic spirit, his brave smile in the face of failure is the kind of story that makes the Games special.

Still, talk about burying the lead! There's an argument that could be made for drawing the Simone drama out, but after that opening, I knew right away that it was going to be a long evening.

Matt Brennan, TV editor: Having just audibly gasped, alone in my apartment, at another fall — this one by the Netherlands' Bart Deurloo — I think there may be a lesson here for future Games: trust the audience. The feats of athleticism on display in the Olympics are unlike any we regularly see on television, and whether successfully pulled off or dramatically botched, there's something naturally compelling about them, even without hype, or stars, or expectations. Like you, Greg, I found myself fully invested in the men's high bar final within 30 minutes of turning on the TV, in part because I had no knowledge of or expectations about the outcome coming in.

If the producers of the NBC broadcast want my advice — and I am sure they do not — I would have told them to air a tightly edited highlight reel of the women's balance beam final at the top of the broadcast and let the night's focus fall instead on what live events there are. Trust the hardcore gymnastics fans to watch live. Trust the prime-time audience to know what happened by now. Trust genuine Olympic surprises and upsets to create tension, not canned teases from Tirico, hosting from home base. If I weren't waiting for Biles to turn up, I just might let myself be swept away.

Brown: I'm not going to lie — I've had a second screen up to watch the livestream of women's park skateboarding during commercials and while keeping half an eye on these track events. I can't help it that I love women's sports more! And, again, these are live. Plus, I'm amazed by these young teen and pre-teen skaters. (Although one of the women in this qualifier seems to be a beginner and I'm very curious about her backstory now...)

Even that amazing women's 800-meter final NBC just showed was not live. The race was incredible and I'm glad I got to see Athing Mu's dominance and Raevyn Rogers' grit — but we already knew what was going to happen.

Brennan: I confess I did not know that was going to happen — at least, not until it aired, and I realized I had seen the news of Mu's victory earlier in the day. As far as I can tell, the biggest event airing live in prime-time Tuesday is the women's 400-meter hurdles.

It's a pretty limited menu to accompany Biles' highly anticipated turn on the beam — a sequence that was kicked off about halfway through the prime-time block by a dramatic Taylor Swift-narrated pre-roll package about Biles' struggles with the "twisties" this Olympics, and the conversation around her decision to withdraw from several events.

Once the beam final began, I was duly impressed by the gymnasts, and there were elements of the broadcast — especially the high-def, slo-motion close-ups of the astounding footwork on beam — that were truly made possible only through the magic of modern television. But compared to the NBC Olympics' official Twitter feed, with its dancing horses and sportsmanlike high jumpers and emotional swimmers in bite-sized, immediate servings, the network TV version of the Games on the whole has felt almost anticlimactic to me.

What did you all make of it?

Brown: I think after having watched the event live this morning, the thing that stuck out to me most was how much NBC milked the moment. It's not just that NBC promoted a previously taped sit-down interview with Biles to air a full hour after the beam was done and dusted in Tuesday's telecast. It's also that the construction of the "drama" can come at the expense of the other athletes! Beam routines are not long, but there were commercial breaks between each gymnast. And instead of showing everyone, the prime-time telecast started with China's Tang Xijing to kick things off. That means Canada's Ellie Black — the gymnast who actually went first and ended up finishing fourth overall — got skipped over, as did Urara Ashikawa of Japan. It's a shame, really.

Braxton: For me, the coverage of the event everyone was waiting for displayed the best and the worst of how NBC has handled the Olympics. Those teaser pre-roll packages for both Simone and all-around winner Suni Lee could have been shown before the competition began, which would have not cut into the momentum of the drama — such as it was. And the onslaught of ads made me scream, again, at the TV.

But not even those annoyances, nor knowing the results, could rob the event of the thrill and emotion of what Simone accomplished. Seeing her triumphant smile after sticking the landing was a sight no bulletin or alert could describe or spoil: the lump in my throat was as big as if I had seen it live. It was, as commentator Terry Gannon enthused, "a routine that will resonate for years."

The same goes for Suni's routine, especially when she almost fell off the beam but — by an incredible show of strength and determination shown in that glorious slo-mo close-up — stayed on. And there was the sight of Jordan Chiles waving away tears after Simone's routine, and of Simone video chatting with her family after earning the bronze. Tracy, as you pointed out in the Slack thread we had going, those details weren't in the live version this morning, a glimpse of some of the ways smart multi-camera editing can elevate the tape-delayed programming when done right.

There is always room for improvement, but I left the evening a satisfied and emotional viewer.

Brown: Honestly, seeing Biles' smile right after her dismount was just as sweet the second time.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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