Why Does NBC's Primetime Figure Skating Broadcast Suck?

Illustration for article titled Why Does NBC's Primetime Figure Skating Broadcast Suck?

For the past few weeks, I've been having a problem. My job, such as it is, has been to watch the Olympic figure skating competitions and to then write about it for this website. So nearly every day, clad in my pajamas and sporting my best last-panel-of-a-Cathy-comic hair, I've loaded up the NBC livestream from my couch to watch the latest events unfold before me. Actually, I've loaded up two feeds, the TV one with Tara Lipinski, Johnny Weir, and Terry Gannon, and an online one hosted by a more serious Australian-British duo, and I've listened to both, simultaneously. Then, mere hours later, I've watched the primetime broadcast on NBC. In this jerry-rigged way I've created something closer to an ideal figure skating broadcast—some mixture of sass and analysis that each feed lacks on its own.


Of course, this is an insane way to live one's life, and I don't expect anyone to follow my lead. But the exercise has demonstrated one thing that should matter to every Olympics viewer: the dreary inadequacy of NBC's flagship team to explain the sport to an audience that needs the expertise.

The NBC primetime team consists of Scott Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic gold medalist in men's skating; Sandra Bezic, a five-time Canadian champion in ladies singles; and Tom Hammond, who, to my knowledge, has never been a figure skater in any shape or form and who generally comes off like a guy who'd much rather be calling the sixth at Keeneland. Tracy Wilson, an Olympic bronze medalist in ice dancing, also did some commentary for the dance portion of the competition. Dick Button, NBC's feisty longtime commentating staple, unfortunately opted out this year, sharing his thoughts on Twitter instead.

These commentators have their moments, bad and good. Hamilton, in his breathless declarations, can sometimes miss the mark. Still, he probably contributes the most of the team in terms of sheer technical explanation. Hammond is the group's resident factoid man, which might've been useful for NBC in the days when factoids served as a principal vector for narrative elaboration but which now seem pointless. And Bezic—though she pontificates on skaters' strengths and weaknesses ("She has music in her heart," she said Wednesday night of Polina Edmunds), and declares certain elements strong and weak— too infrequently explains the logic behind her statements with any level of detail.

If you don't know the sport, you're totally at the mercy of these broadcasters; You need them to explain the intricacies of the sport—the relative quality of similar-seeming jumps or the logic of certain deductions. It's a big responsibility. The three broadcasters sitting rinkside are essentially interpreters, and in that capacity they play an outsize role in determining how the audience processes the events of an evening. When they miss a detail—no one, for instance, mentioned a minor wardrobe malfunction during the free-dance performance by Alex and Maia Shibutani, the American ice dancers, which led to a deduction—so does everyone watching back home.

And sometimes they're just flat-out wrong. During the pairs skate of Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, Bezic complimented the couple's entrance into their death spiral, and noted to viewers that it would increase the element's difficulty to the maximum, level four. But when the judges marks were revealed and that turned out not to be the case, Bezic said "some of their levels are not as high as they're used to, like the death spiral." There was no explanation for the downgrade, which makes me feel like … they didn't know? In any case, the interpreters fell down on the job, and for the primetime audience the sport only retreated further into the fog.

As a practical matter, viewers are stuck with this. Most people don't have six-plus hours to burn and will merely watch the most accessible, conveniently timed coverage—which is, of course, the primetime show. This is unfortunate, because all Olympics long NBC has had a more promising crew pulling morning duty.


That would be former Olympians and Chablis-guzzling "glimmer twins" Weir and Lipinski (working alongside their unremarkable straight man, Gannon). They've been the talk of the Olympic Village this year, and for good reason: They may still be settling into the technical aspect of live skating commentary (too many times, they go completely silent when absorbed in a skater's program), but at the very least they're entertaining. And not just sartorially. They're young, and they know a lot of these competitors personally—which means they have the context, the color, the gossip, behind their performances. We want gossip! Firsthand accounts! Not the boilerplate biographical information served up during the primetime show, when Tom Hammond rattles off the height differentials of ice-dancing and pairs couples like he's delivering jury instructions.

Weir and Lipinski are fun to listen to, and they're also attuned to the sport's insanely complicated scoring system, which is a bonus, because it leads to more detailed explanations about the scoring under that system—which most viewers probably don't understand. (Weir competed under the new scoring system in the 2010 Olympics, and while Lipinski won her Olympic gold under the old six-point scoring rulebook, she's operated under the new one for the last 10 years, about a third of her life.) The strength of the duo, however, is in their witty repartee and off-the-cuff remarks. If the primetime trio are your sweet, slightly daft maiden aunts, Weir and Lipinski are your gossipy friends.


Next to those two, my second livestream, the NBC Live Extra broadcast, seems to exist on a different continuum entirely. This show is hosted by two people you've probably never heard of before, Belinda Noonan and Chris Howarth. Noonan's a former skater and coach, and Howarth was the 1980 British national champion. For the record, these guys do not bring the sass. They do not do daily outfit photoshoots. In fact, they rarely, if ever, announce their names. But they do provide very wonky, very specific commentary about edge changes, program component scores, grades of execution, spin and footwork levels, knee bends, and the general minutiae that constitute the actual enterprise of figure skating.

The Noonan-Howarth team is geared at the hardcore fans. These two are concerned with the why of figure skating, not so much the who. The primetime broadcast reverses the emphasis, on the assumption that viewers won't care too much about the details. That's where NBC misunderstands the sport. Knowing the details of a program helps viewers perceive what makes one skater better than another—the why explains the who. If you listen to the primetime broadcast, you'll likely pick up on the fact that Italy's Carolina Kostner has a more mature skating style than, say, 15-year-old American Polina Edmunds. But in skating, maturity and artistic ability manifest themselves in ways beyond one's facial expression and hair accessorizing. There's the way you bend your knees going into and out of jumps; the way you point your toe and hold your back in a spin. If the broadcasters would elaborate a little on what makes Kostner's technique so beautiful—other than simply saying so—the viewers might get a better sense of why her skills are so unique and, in turn, why she just won a bronze medal.


The ideal broadcast, then? Something for everyone: A little of Johnny and Tara's youthful glitter and little of Noonan and Howarth's wonk and just enough of Scott Hamilton's yips to remind people of how nerve-shreddingly exciting the sport can be. And while we're talking dream teams, let's bring Dick Button back, to give the proceedings a little spleen. What say you, NBC?

Lucy Madison is a NYC-based writer and reporter. Her work has appeared at the Awl, the Hairpin, Interview, CBS News, and more. You can follow her on Twitter here.