Most broadcasters reporting on the Tokyo Games have something in common with TV viewers: They are watching the action from thousands of miles away.
Of the more than 175 commentators assigned to cover the competition for NBC, roughly the same number who were in Rio for the 2016 Olympics, only 75 will actually be in Japan. The rest will conduct interviews, offer play-by-play analysis and try to capture the excitement without ever having to pull out their passports.
It’s not as daunting as it sounds.
NBC Sports reporter Randy Moss, a Minnesota resident since 2008, made it to London for the 2012 Games. But he spent most of his airtime working out of a studio outside the sporting venues, relying on a bank of TV monitors to keep him up to date on several events at once.
“At one point I thought I could actually be doing this from my living room in Prior Lake — and much more cheaply,” said Moss, who is not to be confused with the former NFL receiver.
This time around, Moss will cover equestrian events from a Connecticut studio. His colleague Kerith Burke will report out of Universal Resorts in Orlando, Fla., where NBC and the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee are throwing a two-week viewing party for families of American athletes.
“We’re hoping for some spontaneous chants of ‘USA! USA!,’” said executive producer Molly Solomon, who will supervise more than 7,000 hours of coverage on various NBC platforms, including Peacock, CNBC and the USA Network.
When U.S. athletes win medals, NBC hopes to connect them immediately via satellite with family members and friends, some of whom are going the extra mile to show their support.
The network will pop in on the father of BMX world champion Hannah Roberts, who has set up a giant screen in an outdoor park in Buchanan, Mich., and crash a sleepover for young gymnasts at Simone Biles’ home gym in Texas.
“Due to COVID protocols, we recently made the decision to stay in the U.S. and continue our coverage in our local communities,” said Larry Delia, senior vice president of media operations for TEGNA, which owns KARE 11, the Twin Cities NBC affiliate. “We’re focusing on all of the human-interest stories related to the athletes, and watching along with their families and communities during the competition.”
Minnesota resident Michele Tafoya, who started covering the Olympics in 1998, is one of the NBC personalities who made it to Japan. She’s well aware she won’t have the access she usually enjoys.
“It’s a weird feeling,” she said a few days before boarding a plane. “I’m usually fired up. But this one is weird. We’re going into the unknown.”
One thing is certain: Tafoya, best known for roaming the sidelines during NFL games, won’t be wandering around Tokyo.
Visiting press is not expected to get clearance to go anywhere other than the sporting venues. That means a lot of time chilling in the room.
Long-distance runner Kara Goucher, who is attending her first Olympics as a broadcaster, is packing items like a deflated Swiss ball so she can work out in her room; the hotel gym won’t be open to guests.
“This will be the longest stretch I’ve gone without running except for when I’ve had a major injury,” said the part-time Minnesotan. “It’s just a little personal challenge.”
The bigger test will be doing her job while following strict rules. Reporters won’t be able to get within 6 feet of athletes during interviews. At times, they’ll also have to wear masks while broadcasting from events.
But the obstacles will also open up new TV experiences. Because of the lack of spectators, viewers will get a chance to hear new sounds, from splashing in the pool to intimate conversations between rivals.
Solomon said viewers responded positively to coverage of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Games that allowed you to hear Lindsey Vonn breathing in the start house as she prepared for her ski runs.
“It was incredibly dramatic,” Solomon said.