As a maniacally-relentless watcher of All Things Olympics, during the last Winter Olympics in Sochi I wrote about coming across the under-the-wire coverage of figure skating that was broadcast in the morning in full detail (including the lesser-skaters) on the minor NBC Sports cable channel. I said how terrific their broadcast team was, of Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir, and even the anchor Terry Gannon, who all had a wonderful and fun rapport and who gave actual sports coverage of the event, and in an entertaining (and occasional offbeat) way, rather than handling it all like a genteel arts performance.
I'd long since grown weary of the silence we got from the main NBC team of Scott Hamilton (who had it in him to be good on occasion) and Sandra Bezic (who pretty much didn't), saying things like "Let's just watch..." and not speaking a word for minutes at a time. Or, in Ms. Bezic's case, almost never saying anything during a skate except, periodically, "Oooh, how lovely" or "Oh, my." And the genial Vern Lundquist (who I much like in all his other sportscasting) not really having much of a clue about figure skating -- like most people watching. Which is all the more reason my you need analysts and a hosts who explained what was going on and why.
Clearly, others noticed what was going on in those early mornings, as well, and not just any others but those in positions of authority, because not long after the Olympics it was announced that Lipinksi, Weir and Gannon were promoted to be the #1 team. Hamilton was kept, although as an analyst before and after events, or as an in-studio commentator. Over the past weekend, NBC broadcast the U.S. National Figure Skating Championships, and we got the latest chance to see how the team was doing with the passage of time.
Happily, they were doing just great. The commentary of Lipinski and Weir had matured, and they got the balance of silence and analyzing during a skate respectably close to right. And Gannon's anchor management and even knowledge of the sport had gotten richer. Hamilton also seemed comfortable, enthusiastic and thoughtful in his more-brief appearances. Mainly, it was such a pleasure to watch a sporting event covered as a sporting event -- watching a skate and being told the details of what was going well and wrong and what to expect as it was happening, like analysis should be for a sports event. Yet they knew when to sit back and just watch for a few moments.
And what was said was smart, honest, supportive and critical. And often whimsical. And Gannon's input didn't come across as clueless factoid interruptions ("Two minutes to go"), but rather supportive information by someone who knew what he was talking about. It's also clear that Lipinski and Weir adore each other as friends, sometimes even holding hands when facing the camera after a skate -- not that that ultimately matters, though it creates a strong rapport, which make things all the more listenable. And it's clear how much even more they have grown to like and rely on Gannon to keep everything focused. So, again, it's a great team.
Lipinski and Weir seem far more confident. His flamboyance, sartorial and otherwise, in the past has sometimes come across more as forced, but it seems more settled now, not needing to push "I'm different" in your face, but just be himself, which is plenty flamboyant and different enough. And she comes across as substantive, not just opinionated. The opinions were always fine, because they were informed. Now, they have explanation.
There was another surprising and impressive improvement, making the first significant change in figure skating coverage I've seen in perhaps decades.. Taking a clue from football and baseball, who now have small, box inserts on the screen with stats, NBC now had its own for figure skating. The box kept a running tally of the Technical Points being built up during the current skate, along with the leader's total, and what the weighted point level would be (in essence, how hard it was) for the next element upcoming in the skater's program. And it worked. While I've come to accept and slightly appreciate the stat boxes in other sports, I also find them a bit distracting. Here, it actually added to the broadcast. In part, that's because of the elusive bewilderment of figure skating scoring, but in part it's because (unlike other sports) most of the on-screen landscape in skating isn't important to watch, only the skater, so filling that screen with a stat box doesn't get in the way. It isn't blocking the field or other players. Also, the running stats didn't remove the dramatic "mystery" of waiting for the result, since it was only showing the Technical Points accumulated, and didn't include points for the "program components" (the phrase now used instead of "artistic," a name-change I assume to make figure skating sound less theatrical and more like a sport.)
All in all, it bodes wonderfully for the future. There are other competitions to come before the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, but I look forward to seeing this team in prime time during the Games in two years. What I'll fill the morning hours with during the coverage, though, I don't know. I guess it just means more luge and bobsledding...
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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