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Peacock Turned the Olympics Into a Content Library. Mistake, or the Only Future That Makes Sense?

After the promise of an Olympics hub that would drive subscriber growth, the 2022 approach has been a model that's prioritizing volume over precision.

A Chinese athlete warms up before the start of the men's speedskating 1,500-meter race at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022, in Beijing. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

A Chinese athlete warms up before the start of the men’s speedskating 1,500-meter race at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022, in Beijing.

AP

The main problem with trying to broadcast the Olympics is that the biggest star of the Olympics will always be the Olympics. Aside from the rare instance where a basketball or soccer star may come in like an athletic interloper, the Olympic Games are so designed to be a spectacle that people become overnight sensations just by virtue of being in its orbit. Yes they run fast and swim fast and ski fast and twizzle with grace, but an overwhelming majority of that exists in a distinctly Olympic vacuum.

The 2022 Beijing Games, much like last year’s Tokyo festivities, have been instructive microscopes through which to examine how that ultra reliance on a single brand is a double-edged sword. For two straight iterations, American rights holder NBC has navigated the choppy waters between Too Big to Fail and Too Big to Care. Yet, even with the massive amount of effort put into making these Games available to a potential viewing public, its linear and streaming efforts are still using a formula for a “normal” Olympics, one that may not be completely outdated but may not work for much longer.

Beijing is an improvement over Tokyo in availability. After a more restrictive setup where certain live events were only available to a specific tier of subscribers, Peacock opened the Olympic floodgates the last few notches for Beijing coverage so that viewers can pick any of the NBC family of network streams. That readjustment has gotten viewership higher than last year’s total, but 2022 is still lagging behind the traditional ratings pace of Winter Olympics gone by. NBC brass have acknowledged that shift, while also pointing out that the same nearly-across-the-board dip that’s befallen everything from the World Series to awards shows is being mitigated by non-linear options. Streaming metrics have Beijing viewership well into the billions of minutes, another sign that the Peacock approach is more about volume rather than precision.

Regardless of the measure for success, one area Peacock still hasn’t clicked is curating this massive undertaking. The daily CNBC and USA programming blocks separate some of the pivotal medal moments from the preliminary chaff. Hosts offer primetime coverage recaps from wood-paneled studios that theoretically could be anywhere: Beijing, New York, one of the immersive LED dreamatoriums they use to make “The Mandalorian.” At this point, this two-week parade of athletic spectacle is sliding from event to pure content. Without a major reconception of how it’s presented, that might be its future.

To be fair, any 2022 effort was always going to be at a disadvantage. The combination of a still-lingering global health crisis, more localized geopolitical issues, and the fact that we’re well under a year removed from the pomp of Tokyo have all taken some of the luster off of an enterprise driven by glimmer and glory. That’s not to discount the long stretch of history that saw the Winter and Summer games happen within months of each other on a four-year cycle. That, though, was a fixed rhythm, one that seemed to endure boycotts and scandals (in some cases, thriving on them).

The image that NBC has long worked to convey is that the Olympics are one thing we can collectively agree on. A 2020s landscape, fractured in plenty of ways beyond a swiftly fading monoculture, is making that case harder and harder to make. That past history is there if you go to the Olympics tab on the Peacock homepage and scroll down far enough. Maybe it’s an acknowledgment that in a wave of nostalgia reboots, people might be just as hungry for the glow and spectacle of past Games as they are for the ones currently unfolding.

Having both the Super Bowl and the Olympics seems like a sports bonanza that a network would be happy to host. But this past week and a half has seen NBC trying to fit an even bigger supply of toothpaste through a shrinking tube. Taken separately, either of these events could lay claim to being the center of the sporting world. Rather than creating a momentary sports Voltron, having the Super Bowl during the Olympics only served to outline the advantages that the former has on the latter: appointment viewing vs. an a la carte buffet; months and years’ worth of familiarity with stars vs. starting from scratch every other year; built-in peripheral infrastructure (halftime show, pregame show) vs. an institution that largely exists by itself. Without the equivalent of an NFL season to build that anticipation, if the daily primetime telecast is slipping in its ability to demand attention to a single stage, the Olympics become a Choose Your Own Adventure exercise without anyone guiding the way.

NBC’s February sports largess ended up, in a roundabout way, robbing them of the one thing from last year that felt closest to solving that last problem. The Snoop Dogg/Kevin Hart daily dispatches — glorified highlight-watching Twitch streams that borrowed a sports celebrity drop-in model from the Manningcast — seemed to be the part of the Tokyo coverage that got closest to drawing in viewers who weren’t automatically drawn by the events themselves. But with Snoop deep in Halftime Show prep, the backup plan was an hourlong first-week recap special that functions more as Hart’s audition tape to host a late night show than getting anyone interested in Alpine events.

So what Peacock mainly has to offer are those events, either as they happen or presented in giant rows of menu options like a YouTube channel archive. After testing the waters in Tokyo with a Rich Eisen-hosted daily SportsCenter riff, Beijing has another variation on that theme. Like last year’s effort, “Winter Gold” is trying to be a daily sports report/expert analysis hour pitched toward an audience that’s just as interested in how an athlete posts about their successes as the successes themselves. Again, this is a venture that’s stuck between trying to be a go-to destination for the highlights that have already raced through social media and being a preview for events that time-zone difficulties almost render obsolete anyway.

Because NBC isn’t sharing these Games with any other broadcasters, they’re having to generate interest in real time. With a dearth of carryover stars like Shaun White and Mikaela Shiffrin (NBC managed to shoot itself in the foot in the way it’s covered the latter), anyone without an innate fascination with luge or biathlon or snowboard cross has to get lured in by the narratives that these primetime packages are generating. Even though Beijing has had breakouts like skiing phenom Eileen Gu, without the benefit of a gradual, multi-month ramp-up from a network laser-focused on generating that groundswell, the Olympics are again reliant on its own brand to get people invested.

The hope for Peacock was that this would become a two-way street, that the global attention to Tokyo would help funnel subscribers and eyeballs toward a raft of original programming. Outside of “Bel-Air” and the upcoming dramatized “Tiger King” series “Joe vs. Carole,” though, there hasn’t been a lot of capitalizing on this maximum attention, outside of the occasional Peacock Originals sizzle reel. Without dedicating more of this time to telling people what “Angelyne” and “Killing It” and “Irreverent” are outside of a logo and a few out-of-context frames, Peacock is stuck having to sell people on the idea of Peacock, of potentially watching some things in the future, just as they’ll do with the 2024 Summer Games.

There’s a prevailing wait-til-next-time attitude that assumes the allure of a Paris 2024 reemergence. A return to full in-person celebrations, in the middle of a global hub, is certainly a best-case scenario for a bounce back. But what exactly would the Olympics be returning to? There’s growing resistance to the innate benefit of the Games to the host city (if ever there was a significant one to begin with). Maybe a strategy to build up track/swimming stars in their respective prelims or quadruple down on the non-amateur events could get that appointment viewing factor back up to where NBC wants it to be. More and more, though, it’s looking like the Olympics is just becoming a glossier, more expensive tool in a larger streaming battle that’s leveling everything.

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