Television personnel work inside of the International Broadcast Center at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Wednesday. Live television has always presented challenges, but NBC’s Olympic stumbles this month have unfolded before an audience ready to pounce. (Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The perils of live microphones tripping up NBC’s Olympics

  • Feb. 21, 2018 4:00 p.m.

NEW YORK — Every two years, a miracle of technology unfolds: televising and streaming an Olympics with miles of cable, hundreds of cameras and producers who make split-second decisions on which pictures to beam halfway around the world.

So it’s with a certain irony that when NBC has had problems in Pyeongchang, it has all been very simple: one person, one live microphone and some 20 million critics. The network has apologized — or not — for a handful of gaffes seen as insults by South Koreans, by the Dutch, by women athletes, by ski fans.

Live television and the risks that it brings are nothing new. The climate surrounding it is.

“Live TV used to be fleeting,” says Brett Kurland, a broadcast professor and director of sports programs at Arizona State University. “Something would happen, and you would either see it or you didn’t. Now if you say something that someone doesn’t like, they’ll cut it into a GIF and post it on the Internet. Before you know it, it blows up on your Twitter feed.”

He adds: “Everyone is aware that you’re just a screen grab away from infamy.”

NBC’s first problem came from an unexpected source, an expert on Asia assigned to provide context about the host country during the opening ceremony. Joshua Cooper Ramo has impeccable credentials — educated at the University of Chicago, a former Time magazine foreign editor, now a top executive at former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s consulting firm.

When pictures of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appeared on the screen, Ramo noted that Japan occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945, “but every Korean will tell you that Japan is a cultural, technological and economic example that has been so important to their own transformation.”

That angered many South Koreans who caught wind of Ramo’s remark and resented their country’s treatment by the occupying force. NBC quickly apologized. Ramo hasn’t been heard from since on the network, although NBC said he was not contracted to work beyond the opening ceremony.

NBC has also delved little so far into the culture of South Korea the way it has with other Olympic sites, although a heavy schedule of live events in prime time is a factor, too.

Katie Couric, brought back by NBC for the opening ceremony, was the next to take heat. NBC’s telecast of that ceremony wasn’t televised in the Netherlands but, again, social media quickly made the Dutch aware of comments she had made.

She was discussing the Dutch tradition of excellence in speedskating, and said it stemmed from skating being an important mode of transportation in Amsterdam when canals freeze and people skate from place to place. That left her open to ridicule by some in the Netherlands, who pointed out that the canals rarely freeze anymore and, besides, they have cars now.

When a backlash reached the Twitter feed of the Dutch embassy in the United States, Couric tweeted a good-natured apology about having been “on thin ice.”

NBC’s team of ski announcers has had a rough Olympics so far. Former ski champion Bode Miller is on his first Olympic assignment for NBC and his overly technical, bland approach to calling races has left some viewers drowsy.

But it was his sudden foray into gender roles that really caused him trouble.

Hicks brought up Austrian skier Anna Veith’s serious knee injury when he and Miller were discussing her career decline. Miller suggested another condition — matrimony — may have been to blame. “It’s historically very challenging to race on World Cup with a family or after being married,” he said. “Not to blame the spouses, but I just want to toss that out there, that it could be her husband’s fault.”

The backlash from people who considered the remark sexist was so immediate that Miller apologized on the air barely an hour later. He said it was a failed attempt at humour; his deadpan style had left almost no one suspecting he had been trying to make a joke.

Veith was also central to a serious mistake by Hicks. She was in first place during the super-G competition — apparently, marriage wasn’t hurting her in the Olympics — when Hicks prematurely anointed her the gold medal winner.

After the person considered to be Veith’s last serious contender couldn’t beat her time, Hicks said she was the winner and NBC switched to figure skating. But a longshot contender, Ester Ledecka of the Czech Republic, beat Veith’s time and took gold.

The producers’ decision to move on was defensible; no one really thought Ledecka and some other final skiers had a chance. The mistake was Hicks’ certainty. The announcers sought to explain themselves the next night by describing just how improbable Ledecka’s victory was, but that felt more like an excuse than an attempt at accountability.

While all different, NBC’s problems didn’t stem from attempts to be overly provocative or shocking, unless Miller had motives he wasn’t letting on. Instead, they were misstatements made in front of listeners ready to pounce (the hashtag #nbcfail is a venue for people who want to grumble).

For two weeks, the men and women behind NBC’s microphones command the public’s attention the way very few can anymore in a fragmented society of media consumers. They’re ambassadors for sports that most Americans don’t care about for the three years and 50 months between each Winter and Summer Games.

That provides them with an unparalleled opportunity, and many potential potholes.

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