How NBC could improve its gymnastics broadcasts

by | Aug 5, 2016 | Articles

Article by GymCastic Crew Member Stefane Victor. *Note the feed at the Olympic Games is provided by the Olympic Broadcasting Service (OBS), an International Olympic Committee service, not NBC. In domestic competitions, NBC’s camera people are on the floor. 

It’s here—the weeks every Gym Nerd has been waiting for: the Olympics. Sacrifices have been made, prayers have been sent up, arguments have been had and my fingers are sore. Before we set out on this journey of medals, accomplishments, tears, drama and subsequent retirements, I have compiled a list of things that NBC (the owner of broadcasting rights in the U.S.) can do to improve its already good broadcast. Let’s get right to it!

1. Show as much gymnastics as possible.

In the past few Olympic cycles, U.S. coverage of the Olympic team and individual finals has centered around the superstars of the U.S. and main opposition’s team. While the routines shown have provided background for the NBC story, U.S. viewers leave the finals not having seen much of the gymnastics that took place. To loosely quote the wise words of Calvin Harris (and apparently Taylor Swift), [gymnastics] is what we came for. Show more gymnastics.

Yes, a very large portion of the NBC audience will be primarily concerned with U.S. progress throughout the games given that NBC is an American broadcaster and the U.S. is the most dominant nation in WAG. But because of how the events are run during TF, two teams rotate on each apparatus which provides time to see, at the very least, six routines per rotation. During previous competitions, much time was spent watching the U.S. girls on the sidelines while other performances were going on. The sideline cameras add great, raw emotions and can build a story of what the gymnasts are feeling but those clips do not trump seeing actual gymnastics.

  • While any gymnastics is going on, we should not see the sideline camera.
  • Show reactions and shots of gymnasts talking/emoting in the time between rotations.This way, the audience won’t miss a routine while waiting for a hopefully significant expression of a gymnast not performing.
  • Most of the top four nations should be shown during TF along with unique/noteworthy routines outside of the top 4 nations.

2. Enable viewers to be well-versed in gymnastics and feel fluent in the competition’s progress.

Tim Daggett does a pretty good job with describing most acrobatic skills across the events, for example, he says something along the lines of “the Biles: Simone does two flips in a stretched position, we call that a layout, and does a 1/2 turn at the end to land forward, making it that much harder.”

Most broadcasts, though, completely glaze over dance elements and their corresponding difficulties. A switch 1/1 and a Gogean are just as difficult as a double back on floor but are rarely ever talked about. Highlighting the dance elements and how they can also build a D score will provide fans with a more comprehensive view of gymnastics and why it’s called Artistic Gymnastics.

Something to be even more helpful would be introducing skills once (more common skills could have a shorter description) and introducing the short name for the skill as to not have to explain it again during the same broadcast. For example, on Aly’s FX, all the skills of her first pass will have been explained and the commentators can say that the pass is worth 0.4 in connection and comment on how well she’s doing the pass for her.

Describe form deductions to empower the audience to have an understanding of what E score to look for before it comes up. Gymnasts are judged for balance and body positions down to their toes. Gymnastics 101, while it may be a class Daggett aced in learning gymnastics, isn’t a useful course in preparation to understand the Olympics under this code. A gymnast can stick a dismount, but may have more deductions just on the landing due to chest position. Gymnastics judging has changed and become much more nit-picky than just the lasting impression and commentators should be careful to highlight that.

3. Broadcast from three unique points of view in order to foster a multi-perspective dialogue.

The current NBC broadcasting team for the WAG events has two Olympic champions and Al Trautwig. Tim and Nastia offer gymnastics expertise as former gymnasts from WAG and MAG and from different eras. Al Trautwig plays the part of the intermediary between a “know nothing” audience and the gymnastic experts by his side. This has been the formula for gymnastics broadcasting for decades: one male and one female expert, a male mediator and gymnastics. Add some fluffs and you have a gymnastics broadcast.

While gymnastics interest has grown remarkably in the past decades, partly due to the gymnastics coverage NBC has provided throughout the Olympics (), the broadcasting format needs to change. Just like everything else, like the Code of Points, for example, the broadcasting needs to develop with the developing interest and level of popularity of the sport. As noted above, fans don’t need explanations for every skill every time it is performed. The internet provides home with an encyclopedia of information at their fingertips. Fans can pull up videos of past champions on their phones while enjoying the Olympics live. A fan can bring him/herself up to speed faster than any commentator can. Gymnastics commentating therefore doesn’t need to be from the perspective of “let us make this simple for you simple viewers to keep your attention.” It can be more nuanced and personal.

Nastia, I’d love to hear you talk about being a part of five finals in one Olympic Games. What toll did that take on you mentally? How should Simone prepare? How did you feel after falling on bars during TQ? Did you think you messed everything up? Can Simone make a mistake and not crumble during qualifications? You were the favorite for three golds (TF, UB, BB) and contender for another (AA). The Olympics turned out the opposite for you—how was that heading into the last finals? How do you think Gabby has handled her comeback as Olympic champ?

Tim, you were a part of a gold medal team performance. What is the feeling when someone else is competing and gold is on the line? How is it different than when you are competing? Are you watching/or not? How does it actually feel to fall and get back up? How does it feel to land a hard vault? What does the pounding of gymnastics actually feel like? When you say “she’s pretty beat up,” what injuries are you referring to?

Tim and Nastia, how does it feel to train a skill that ends up being too difficult or physically taxing to compete? How does it feel to land an Amanar—like being hit by a train? 

4. Stay away from stereotypes and tropes. Address them if only to back them up with evidence or to debunk them.

I can’t say how many times someone has asked, “How is Gabby gonna do, she’s too old right?” We all know that she’s not. If she does well in the next weeks, she could be the AA silver medalist, at least. Sure, what Gabby has accomplished thus far is very rare for an American gymnast, but it’s not unheard of on the world stage. Romania’s representative in Rio has competed over four quads and is a contender for multiple medals.

As we can see in pop culture and even politics, facts matter less and less. Lies and misleading truths circulate four times around before a debunking fact is taken into consideration. For example, Laurie Hernandez was pegged as “taken for UB/FX” during the Trials broadcast. That is untrue. While she may/may not be used on those events during TF, she earned her ticket on BB.

This may seem small but it comes to a bigger issue with some gymnastics commentating—it’s not viewed as serious/important. Details are important, facts are important. To build a market, the product (gymnastics and gymnastics coverage) needs to be taken seriously.

5. Change the “Stoplight System.” Scores should be presented in a way that indicate the relative success of the routine.

Everyone could easily understand the 10.0 system. Viewers knew what the ideal score was and they could quickly connect with gymnastics events without having to recalibrate every quad. Thats why, even 10 years after the open-ended scoring system’s inception, it comes up as the standard of gymnastics scoring. NBC’s stoplight system attempts to help viewers understand how good a routine was based on the deductions the judges took. If all gymnasts started from the same D score, it’d be perfect. As they don’t, it’s barely useful and very misleading.

For example, Shang can get a 9.0 E score on her 5.0 D VT for a 14.0. She can also get a 8.7 E score for her 6.7 D UB routine for a 15.4. The VT score would be marked green while the UB would be marked yellow. The UB E score is quite common and the final score would put her in strong contention for an UB EF medal, while the VT score is quite poor. Below, I have a graphic for a better system.

Screen Shot 2016-08-05 at 11.08.58 AM6. Be mindful of camera angles; gymnasts, some of whom are underage, are in revealing uniforms and cameramen should be keep that in mind.

This is simple: do not show gymnasts bending over on the sidelines. Not only is it unnecessary to see someone picking up tape, it can put gymnasts and families watching in compromising situations. No gymnast or gym fan wants to see an athlete who may be under 18, even 15 in some cases, in a compromising position.

7. Review every broadcast with gymnastics experts and fact checkers.

Why am I writing for GymCastic and not espn.com/basketball you ask? Simple, I know what I’m talking about when I talk about gymnastics and not basketball. I have an interest in gymnastics and gymnastics history and I couldn’t be paid to pay the same attention to most other sports (those sports I was probably forced to play until middle school ). *pray for Stefane’s mental health*

I couldn’t tell you how many home runs Kobe scored during the last MLB final, or how many goals Lebron shot during the 3rd period of the last Super Bowl, and that probably won’t change soon. Knowledge matters, facts matter, true expertise matters, especially when trying to gain or build confidence. A small mistake during a conversation will happen because we are all human. Maybe someone will say the 2002 AA World Champion winner was Stefane Victor *please, someone say that* when there wasn’t an actual Worlds AA competition that year. Mistakes happen—but it is a testament to the integrity of a network and a commentator to care enough to realize mistakes and correct them.

There should be someone checking what has been said to make sure a a mistake can be corrected.

5 Comments

  1. Thealidoyle

    It looks like they took some of your advice, particularly for stoplight scoring. It looked like they adjusted the amount if deductions for green, yellow, and red to reflect typical scoring for apparatus.

    I kind of want TF coverage to include 1 routine from each of the top 8 countries. The only routine not from Russia or China we saw in prime time was Ellie Downey.

    And get rid of Al!

  2. Mary McN-C

    Excellent article. It is clear, concise, polite, professional and above all else, true and factual. Well done!

  3. WIll Rountree

    This is a very important topic for gymnastics. Thanks for addressing it.

    I\’m finding that Kupets, Horten, and Liukin and Daggett don\’t know the routines ahead of time. One of the rules of a good speech is, tell us what you\’re going to say, say it, and then tell us what you said. The same should be true for announcers: tell us what we\’re about to see from the athletes, see the athletes actually do it, and then tell us what we saw (and how that differed from what the gymnast was \”supposed\” to do, and how it was reflected in the scores.) If the announcers don\’t study thoroughly ahead of time, then those of us who are gymnastic nerds will feel that they haven\’t done their homework, AND they can\’t sufficiently educate those who are less knowledgeable about the sport.

    Second, why do they have to have an uneducated person, almost always a guy, who doesn\’t know anything (or much) about the sport, to act as mediator to the lesser-educated audience? If baseball or basketball or football had someone who didn\’t know the sport and the athletes to act as mediator, there would be outrage. EVERYONE WHO IS ANNOUNCING SHOULD BE INFORMED ABOUT THE DETAILS OF THE SPORT, PERIOD.

    In short, to improve on their telecasts, NBC should focus on:
    More gymnastics
    More educated announcers (get rid of the uncle who doesn\’t know the sport)
    Convey EXCITEMENT about the SPORT, and ADMIRATION for the ATHLETES
    DRAMA comes from the ability to EXECUTE THESE DIFFICULT PROGRAMS UNDER THE STRESS OF THE KLIEGLIGHTS OF A WORLDWIDE AUDIENCE. Therefore, the ALL ANNOUNCERS SHOULD BE EDUCATED ABOUT WHAT THE ATHLETES ARE PLANNING TO DO BEFORE THEY DO IT.

    It is ESPECIALLY IMPORTANT TO HAVE THE ANNOUNCERS FOR THE ONLINE AUDIENCE TO HAVE THE MOST EDUCATED ANNOUNCERS because these are the folks who are more dedicated to the sport.

    Thanks again for raising this topic. Hope NBC listens, but networks execs are so stuck in their views, it\’ll probably take two more Olympic cycles for them to wise up about anything except more ways to show advertisements.

  4. Michelle

    Awesome! Amazing! Will it was very well said.

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