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Calling the Rio Olympic Games from 4,800 miles away

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Working remotely is just how the 21st-century works.

But A.J. Mleczko, NBC’s on-air analyst for Rio Olympic field hockey, suggests not everybody realizes just how remote you can be: “I’m hearing on social media from friends all over that they hope I’m having fun in Rio.”

She isn’t. Mleczko, in real time, is describing that fast-paced Rio action from about 4,800 miles away.

Which makes sense, although a Rio Olympic experience in a Connecticut town known for corporate headquarters and posh suburbs doesn’t exactly offer obvious opportunities to do the Bossa Nova. 

Mleczko’s game calls, from soundproof booths just down the hall from NBC’s Football Night in America studio, are from the same action she’d need to focus on even if she were in Brazil – namely, the world TV feed.

She’s among the more than 1,000 NBC Olympic staffers working on Olympic coverage out of NBC Sports Group’s main office in Stamford, Conn. They aren’t just backing up the 2,000-plus NBC workers on-site in Brazil – many are on the front lines of creating what viewers see.

Remember that Olympic TV is different from most TV sports. Olympic broadcasters, no matter where on the globe they’re from, are going to be faced with sports they rarely – if ever – cover. Plus, Olympic organizers would be courting chaos if broadcasters from around the world had to jam events to create their own coverage.

Instead, organizers provide every broadcaster that has TV rights to the Games with the world TV feed. It’s elaborately-produced, usually by TV people who regularly cover the sports, and it captures every second of every competition.

That’s what you get, along with English-language commentary that comes with the world TV feed, on NBC’s live streams. And while NBC bolsters its Rio coverage with lots of on-the-scene cameras and announcers, you’re often seeing the world feed on NBC’s multi-channel coverage.

Meaning that unlike on most regular TV sports, where announcers and production people talk to each other during broadcasts to decide camera shots match on-air commentary, Olympic announcers can only react to what they’re being shown on the world feed.

Mleczko, who called NBC Olympic ice hockey on-site at the 2014, 2010 and 2006 Winter Games after playing for the U.S. women’s Olympic ice hockey silver-medal team in 2002 and gold-medal team in 1998, is already trying something new. She’s calling a sport she played in high school before she gave it up to focus on ice hockey.

The obvious challenges with calling action strictly from the world TV feed, she says, include not being able to see what’s going in the entire field – which is a lot bigger than an ice rink. (And, she makes sure she talk about field hockey’s “goalkeeper” -- not a “goaltender.”)

But more subtle complications include figuring out how to fit in some quick storytelling. Unlike announcers in typical TV sports, she can’t focus on, say, a particular player and assume her producer and director will keep shots of that player on-air. “There are great stories about the U.S. players but you have to be careful if you start talking about one and suddenly they’re showing the opposing coach,” she says. “There’s much less control.”

Melanie Smith Taylor, NBC’s Olympic equestrian analyst, isn’t new to calling the Rio sport she covers or to working off the remote TV feed. After competing in the 1984 Summer Olympics, on the gold-medal U.S. showjumping team, she covered equestrian events at NBC’s 1988 Summer Games and, with the exception of 2004 Games when a family matter kept her away, worked the network’s coverage ever since. She called the 2008 Beijing Games from the Manhattan set of NBC’s Saturday Night Live – where NBC based its off-site Olympic announcers before moving to Connecticut in 2013. And while she was in England for the 2012 London Games, she worked off a monitor in a broadcast center.

Compared to earlier Olympics where she was at the venues, Taylor misses being able to walk the course and get up-close-and-personal with the horses themselves.

But, she says, “social media has changed everything.”

From Stamford now, Taylor can text, call or use Facebook to reach equestrian contacts everywhere around venues or anywhere in the world. And Taylor, who like other announcers is calling events that NBC might not air in their entirety, but whose footage might end up in TV features or highlight packages, loves the lavish multi-channel coverage of today’s Games.

And the quality of today’s Olympic world feed, she says, is semi-amazing: “With their microphones now, you can hear every hoofbeat, every click on the rail.”

While Taylor’s equestrian calls get chunks of live time on NBC’s Rio platforms, she lived through the old days when coverage didn’t include cable channels and was limited to far fewer hours. At the 1988 Seoul Games, “we were on air live once and it was about a minute in the middle of the night. I doubt if anybody saw it.”

But, she says about 1988, “to be fair NBC had to go breaking stories” – and squeeze them into relatively tiny broadcast windows.   

Jim Kozimor, a host for NBC Sports Group's regional sports network in San Francisco, CSN Bay Area, has returned to call play-by-play for NBC’s Olympic badminton coverage and says, “it’s always nice to get a feel from a venue."

But as he calls Rio badminton from Connecticut with analyst Charmaine Reid, both say they can see plenty off the feed from Rio. Reid says it can be fun to be on-site and see what’s going on “even in the stands,” but in watching the world feed “you can see everything going on – even the wind currents. After a few rallies you can tell which way the wind is blowing.” (Reid does, however, have a suggestion for the world TV feed: Onscreen graphics showing speeds of the shuttlecocks, aka birdies, which can rocket off racquets at speeds around 300 miles per hour. “That would open viewers’ eyes.)   

Off-site announcers seem to agree that their big Olympic TV challenge has nothing to do the TV feed. Instead, it’s an old Olympic TV conundrum: How do you juggle talking to viewers who don’t follow your Olympic sport outside the Games and still connect with aficionados tuning in?

Mleczko can relate to anybody sampling new sports because “I love the Olympics and when I’m not working as a broadcaster I’m just flipping around.” Reid, a Canadian who won five national badminton championships and competed in the 2004 Athens Games, can relate to viewers who last played her sport at a barbecue: “I started in the backyard."

Equestrian analyst Taylor says, “It’s the hardest thing to explain to the person flipping around but not dumb things down. But NBC has said that this is Olympics and that aficionados can always go to the live stream. Olympic viewers want to know stories, not just the technical things.”

Mleczko says the key is to try to “explain the sport but not condescend.”

And, incidentally, Mleczko’s friends shouldn’t expect explanations for she didn’t bring them souvenirs from Rio. In calling action from Connecticut, she says, “I never say, ‘here in Rio.’ And on social media, I say all the time that I’m in Stamford. So there’s no deception.”

Taylor’s friends, however, might be surprised when they hear how she felt working the Summer Games. “It’s cold in these booths. We all have our sweaters on.”

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