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How NBC's Olympics Coverage Won Primetime: An Interview with Emmy Award-Winning Director Brad Garfield

For all the grief NBC has received for its coverage this Olympics, London 2012 is looking like it will be a roaring success for the old peacock. Ratings for this go-round are beating ratings from Beijing, which has led the network to predict it might...
August 7, 2012, 3:00pm

For all the grief NBC has received for its coverage this Olympics, London 2012 is looking like it will be a roaring success for the old peacock. Ratings for this go-round are beating ratings from Beijing, which has led the network to predict it might make a small profit on the games, after initially predicting a $200 million loss. And as much as people complain about tape delays for primetime coverage, NBCOlympics.com has surpassed one billion pageviews.

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But all of the squabbling over whether NBC has succeeded or not aside, the network’s production effort this year has been one of the biggest and most involved in history. It’s easy to forget while you’re yelling for Usain Bolt or rolling your eyes at that horrific gymnastics song being played again that hundreds of crew members, led by dozens of directors, are all working their tails off to bring you exactly what you see.

To gain a little insight into what it takes to run things behind the scenes, I had the chance to talk to director/producer Brad Garfield, who worked as a director for NBC during the Atlanta and Sydney games, and for CBS during Nagano. He won a pair of Emmys for his work with NBC, but for him Nagano was the most memorable: His wife went into labor prematurely with twins while he was headed to Japan, which left him subsequently flying home, directing from New York, and trying (and failing) to convince her to name their son Nagano. We chatted about what it’s like to condense so many events into such a small television window and why primetime still rules.

What was the day-to-day work like? Did you have to spend 18 hours in a truck or what?

You know what, it’s not that glorious. Atlanta in ‘96 was my first Olympics. I had started working and doing some stuff for NBC sports after I left my job at PBS as a director, I was doing some freelance directing for NBC sports. That was kind of exciting, and then when they asked if I wanted to work on the Olympics, I thought it was going to be great: I’d get to go and see the venues and check out Atlanta.

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But you work for so long, and they put you on this contract that – as a young director, you don’t make a ton of money, you’re kind of stuck doing it for the experience. You work 18-hour days, you go back to the dorms that you’re staying in and crash, and then you’re up again having breakfast and running back to the truck. In three weeks I think I got one or two days off.

Holy cow.

I know. It’s kind of a long, grueling experience. What I was directing wasn’t actually a venue, what I was directing was the studio show. You know, the show that they do at night with Bob Costas, and they kind of summarize and they toss to events, and they have some guests in the studio? That’s what I was doing.

So they have multiple teams of directors all over the event?

Yeah, there were like 30 directors. And we all won Emmys for being part of the directing team for the Olympics. That’s exciting.

What I didn’t even realize — I’d never been nominated for an Emmy before — what that we were all nominated for an Emmy, and then I was told that pretty much we were going to win, that it was pretty much a shoe in. Whenever the Olympics are nominated, which is every four years, they basically win for everything.

Still, I thought that it was cool, I could win an Emmy, and go to the Emmys. But I found out I was nominated for the Emmy as part of the directing team, and we weren’t invited to the actual awards. We were told that there would just be a representative, one of the senior directors and one of the heads of NBC would be there for us. And then, when we won — we had to pay for the Emmys.

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(Laughs)

They charged us. I think it was like $300 to actually get the actual Emmy award. So I’ve got two beautiful, gold Emmys in my office right here, I’m looking at them. And I paid for ’em.

But I did the Olympics for NBC twice, and that’s basically what happens, unless you’re one of the big, well-known directors that does the opening ceremony or the primetime studio show. Unless you’re one of those guys, it’s not all that glamorous. Still, it’s a great experience, and it’s a great opportunity to say early in your career that "I’m an Emmy award-winning director."

So how do some sports get picked for more coverage? Gymnastics, for one, always has a ton of backstory on the athletes themselves, with the same damn fluff pieces played over and over, and then stuff like skeet shooting, you never even see any footage.

There are lots of sports that people don’t know much about. At the beginning of primetime (which starts at 8 o’clock), usually the network doesn’t have something big on right away. They’ll show synchronized diving or something like that, which gives viewers a chance to get situated and finish dinner. Usually the main primetime sports start at nine o’clock, from nine to 11:30.

The biggest sports are gymnastics and swimming – to start the Olympics off, those are the big sports. Track ends the Olympics, it’s huge for the back of the Olympics. Those are your big primetime sports

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But when there’s a big time difference… it’s changed so much, Derek, with the internet and cable and everything like that. You don’t want to listen to the radio or watch the news if you plan on watching the Olympics at night. Like yesterday, I was driving and I knew the women’s gymnastics team won the gold, and that was six hours before the actual event was televised. But that’s just what you get now, especially with the time difference. Your big big sports are usually what’s covered in the primetime hours.

This is easily my most favorite Olympics segment ever.

During the day, there are some key sports that people really like. Beach volleyball for men and women is becoming huge. When I was doing the Olympics we didn’t have beach volleyball, we had just indoor volleyball, which has also always been pretty big. Of course, soccer is getting bigger and bigger.

I think people have kind of lost their interest in Olympic basketball. Basketball is still a big draw, a lot of people like it, but I think basketball is bigger for people to watch on the weekends. You don’t see a lot of basketball coverage during the week, because we’re blowing these teams out by approximately 50-60 points. Once we start getting closer to the finals, then you’ll see more primetime basketball coverage.

They like to mix it up every once in a while, usually in the first primetime hour of coverage. You’ll get some skeet shooting, maybe they’ll throw in some ping pong. Maybe they’ll throw in some events that people don’t even realize that are even in the Olympics. Usually wrestling and boxing will start getting some good coverage, those are the big draws. I’m not exactly sure how the network figures it out now, but over the years, they’ve figured out where their biggest ratings are, and they try to save those for your primetime coverage. But we’ll see what happens.

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What do you do with something totally unexpected? Like in 1996, you had the bombing in Atlanta.

That turns into a news event. It’s a different type of producing. The one thing that you don’t want to do when anything like that happens is to report on what the rumors are. There are a lot of facts that need to be brought to you. So there’s kind of more of a news producing element that has to be brought in. The good thing is that you have pretty good anchors, like Bob Costas, they used to have Jim Nantz, and some other guys, that were pretty good at handling news events. But then you have to bring in non-sports producers, more news producers. NBC has a great news team, so they’ll bring in their crew.

NBC News is in London right now. If there was anything terrible that happened, you’d have your news coverage that you’d throw to, and let them handle that bit of the story. I remember, I think I was doing March Madness for CBS Sports when the Gulf War broke out, and we’re always set up in sports to dial in and throw to news. And, those people, that’s their strength, that’s their forte, that’s what they do. You let the news people bring you the facts and then your sports people can kind of comment about it and how it affects the crowds and things like that, but it’s a different division of television and that’s when your executive producers really have to decide on who’s going to make those decisions, who’s going to do the reporting.

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It’s obviously not an easy thing to deal with. The world’s changed a lot now, and you have to be ready to have your news team there and handle any type of terrorism or breaking news. I think that’s why Brian Williams is there, and why all the evening news crews have their reporters there just to cover anything that could happen. They’re set up for it.

This year NBC has gotten a lot of grief over their coverage on Facebook and Twitter. In 1996 none of that existed. How has that changed the coverage?

It’s changed it a lot in the sense that people really want to know right away what’s going on. It’s an instantaneous audience that wants to know whats going on right away.

The communication that the world can have with athletes, and the athletes tweeting and commentating, and the instant ability for you to find out whats going on in the Olympics… it’s just enhanced the whole idea of what broadcast media has become. It’s not just television anymore, you can watch all the Olympics online. You can be tweeting with athletes while you’re watching what’s going on. I think it’s just made it more exciting.

To me, it’s overwhelming, but it’s the way our broadcast communicating has become. It’s so diverse, and so instantaneous, and there are so many in-depth avenues of analysis. When you’re watching gymnastics on television, they’ll do an ‘in-depth’ story on one of the athletes. But you can go online right now and get an in-depth story probably of every athlete participating in the Olympics if you want, and then tweet at them, send them messages and wish them good luck.

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What do you personally think of NBC’s coverage this year?

You know, it’s funny. I was listening to ESPN radio, and they were bitching about the coverage, saying "We want to see it live. We don’t want to hear about it, and know what’s going to happen, and then watch it six hours later." I understand that, but I don’t want to watch sports events at three o’clock in the morning. I understand they’re saying you could watch it live at noon, or three o’ clock in the afternoon, instead of waiting till nine o’ clock at night. I understand what they’re saying.

But most people have jobs and work nine to five, so it’s kind of hard for them to keep up. I like the way the coverage has been. I know that on Bravo during the afternoon you can see some of the other venues, but NBC still has most coverage in one place.

I understand [why people want to watch events live], but I don’t want to watch sports events at three o’clock in the morning.

I don’t know if you ever watch college basketball, but March Madness is confusing now. There are like four different networks that are running the games, so you can watch some games on this network, and some games on this network. I like being able to go to one network and watch everything. I know I might be old-fashioned.

But, I think they’ve made some pretty good decisions on – I don’t know if you watched last night. It started with synchronized diving, which is kind of boring, but it went back and forth between gymnastics and swimming. That’s what I wanted to watch, that’s what I wanted to see. I wanted to see the U.S. team, and I wanted to see how they dealt with Russia.

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I wanted to see how some of the other countries did as well, compare ‘em, but I don’t want to watch the Olympics for eight hours. I watched from eight o’clock to 11:30 last night, and I saw everything I wanted to see. But I might be considered an old-timer. A lot of people might want to see more of the countries, more of the events.

At the same time, I think NBC cut out a terrible performance by a Russian gymnast to pump up the drama. What do you think about something like that?

I noticed that. There were three gymnasts for every event last night. Two of Russia’s went on the floor exercise. I think it was the last exercise of the evening. All of a sudden, it was like, "What happened to the third?" Then all of a sudden the Americans were going. I don’t understand why they did that. I’m sure they could be better. The fact that it’s edited, that’s a little bothersome. I’d rather see the whole event. I think I would rather see the whole event than the cut down version, but I understand why they do it.

Last question is one I know you’re tired of: Would you do it again?

No. Only reason being, I don’t like being away from my family for that long. I know that if I went in and directed for NBC now, I’d be considered one of the senior directors, and it would probably be a lot more exciting. But now, I’m not in that state of mind anymore. I prefer going away for a few days and then coming home. When you do it, you’re usually gone for a month of traveling around. So, I think I’ve had my experience, I’ve enjoyed it, I was able to get two Emmys and it was good for me.

Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @derektmead.

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