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NBC’s Winter Olympics coverage was the best it’s been in years

The network took its focus off human interest stories and put it back on the sports.

Figure Skating - Winter Olympics Day 14
Evgenia Medvedeva won the Olympic silver medal for her figure skating.
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Was it just me, or was NBC’s coverage of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang a lot better than it’s been in the past?

Some of this might be how low a bar the network had to clear. Its 2016 coverage of the Summer Games (at least in its primetime program) was such a mess that it really had nowhere to go but up. Some of it was that NBC is almost always better at covering the Winter Games, where the US tends to be less dominant than at the Summer Games, meaning NBC has to cast about for interesting stories about people from other countries, rather than running nonstop human interest stories about American athletes. And some of it was that many of the storylines at these Olympics, especially in the heavily watched sport of figure skating, were unusually compelling.

But a lot of it stems from just how much better NBC has gotten at modulating its programming. Yes, the network still made silly decisions here and there, like spending a fair amount of time showing American skiers’ training runs. But even when it did something dumb, it usually followed up that moment with a smarter decision, which kept whole evenings of programming from sliding off a cliff into mawkish, soft-focus platitudes.

I’ve complained a lot in the past that NBC takes the inherent drama of sports and tries to package that drama as a newsmagazine. And its 2018 coverage wasn’t perfect. The network cut away from a skiing competition before an unlikely winner took gold, and the less said about commentator Bode Miller, the better. But in South Korea, competition moved back toward center stage, and if you weren’t interested in the events NBC chose to highlight, it had far more options for viewership on a variety of channels and platforms.

Is NBC learning? It’s hard to say, but I dearly hope so.

The 2020 Games in Tokyo will be the real test for NBC

Alpine Skiing - Winter Olympics Day 13
NBC spent a weird amount of time showing practice runs for American skier Mikaela Shiffrin.
Alain Grosclaude/Agence Zoom/Getty Images

One thing working to NBC’s advantage is that the time difference between Pyeongchang and the United States allowed many events to play out live in primetime, including much of the figure skating. Thus, the network largely let the skating of Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, or the Russian competitors Alina Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva, speak for itself.

Yes, it went out of its way to turn the competition between Zagitova and Medvedeva into a catfight, which was eye-rolling in its barely restrained sexism, but every time it would seem to tilt too far into this, there would be another skater to watch. The live element sometimes kept NBC from overindulging its worst impulses.

But even in cases when NBC heavily packaged a program around an event that had happened hours earlier — as with the opening ceremony — its choices were generally smarter. Katie Couric and Mike Tirico proved nimble announcers, with less of the weird exoticism that sometimes overtook the ceremonies hosted by Matt Lauer (fired from NBC in a sexual harassment scandal) and Meredith Vieira.

Sure, the network took a one-minute introduction of Team USA and stretched it out to seven minutes (thus making it seem as if Psy’s “Gangnam Style” were an endless song), but harmless nationalism is often the whole point of the Olympics. So why not?

Even as complaints about NBC’s Olympics coverage in the 2010s have been legion, the network has slowly been improving its streaming platform with every new edition of the games. In 2018, it finally seemed as if it could handle the crush of viewership that sometimes drove it to technical issues in the past. Yes, commercials often seemed interposed at random during downtime, but never in the middle of actual sporting events, as had been the case in the past.

None of this suggests that NBC is off the hook forever. The 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo will have many of the same benefits of the 2018 Games, especially when it comes to an advantageous time differential with the US. But the Summer Olympics, where the US is generally more likely to sit atop or near the top of the medal count, often lead NBC to chase its own worst impulses of relentlessly pushing predetermined narratives. (It also won’t help that the Summer Games often schedule major events — especially in track and field — for the cooler evening hours, which will be the early morning in most of the US.)

But I’m choosing to let the 2018 Olympics give me hope that NBC is finally addressing some of its most persistent criticisms. The network still has a long way to go, and it has to stop assuming that the best way to tell human stories at the games is via packaged profiles straight out of Dateline, rather than letting those human stories unfold in the midst of the competition itself. But maybe the network is moving in the right direction at long last. We’ll find out in two and a half years.