Who Are These People?
Viewers Will See Fresh Faces At Olympic Games
By Stuart Miller -- Broadcasting & Cable, 8/15/2004 8:00:00 PM
Executives were impressed by Clement's résumé. For starters, he showed them the tape of his work doing the Great Outdoor Games for ESPN, announcing sports so off-beat they make the most obscure Olympic sport look mainstream.
"I've done target sports, like archery and riflery, and timber sports involving axes and saws. I've done log-rolling [two people try to buck each other off a spinning log] and boom-running [where people race along logs chained together floating on the water]," he says. "Those proved I was not uni-dimensional."
But what sold NBC was badminton.
Clement disclosed that, as a youth in Canada, he had been a badminton champion. And so, at the Athens Olympics, he is analyzing badminton and table tennis and doing the play-by-play for the modern pentathlon.
Clement sees nothing but upside in being a stranger in a strange sports land. For one, the sports don't even have their own clichés and sayings. "I'm starting with a clean slate," he says. "I feel free."
To make sure the slate is clean but not blank, NBC had four researchers attend 20 world championships and create "research manuals" filled with everything from a sport's rules to biographies of its main players. Then the network had a one-day seminar in May for all the analysts, providing an array of tips.
"Clement will be changing gears a lot," says Molly Solomon, who for the fifth time is coordinating coverage and was in charge of hiring talent for the Games. Clement is one of her finds.
This year, she had her hands full. NBC's coverage, on the network and some of its cable channels, runs until Aug. 29. By then, NBC outlets will have shown more coverage than the last five Olympics combined. And a lot of it—table tennis, kayaking, water polo—requires announcers to explain what's going on it to a public that is generally bewildered if not unenthusiastic.
"I watched a lot of tapes," says Solomon, who was promoted to managing director of cable coverage following the Salt Lake Games. (Solomon, who is coordinating producer of NBC's Olympics cable coverage, also gave birth to triplets a year ago.) "It's an incredible explosion of coverage, and it has multiplied all of our jobs in terms of organization and preparation. This is definitely the most challenging job I've had." NBC sent 3,100 people to Athens. The U.S. Olympics team has only 550.
100 Voices, Lots of Rookies
In Sydney four years ago, NBC had 67 voices on the air; in Athens, it will have at least 100 announcers. While we've already seen familiar faces, like Bob Costas and Jim Lampley (working his 12th Olympics), about half the announcers are making their Olympics debut.
Some of these rookies are broadcast veterans. Bob Neumeier, the track-and-field reporter, has spent nearly two decades as a sports anchor at CBS-owned WBZ Boston and years working on NBC's thoroughbred-racing telecasts. Others are athletes new to the booth, like Karch Kiraly, the three-time gold-medalist who still competes in beach volleyball.
"Every talent search is unique," Solomon says. "We take different avenues to find the right person."
For a handball analyst, Solomon had no ideas—"I'd never watched any handball"—until she learned that the U.S. teams failed to qualify for the Games. That was unfortunate, but it also meant Solomon could find a homegrown star to be her announcer. "Who would know better about the game and the other athletes?" she says. Dawn Allinger Lewis, a member of the 1996 U.S. team, was hired last fall and proved so dedicated that she spent her own money to go to Slovenia to watch a championship tournament.
In measuring the potential of ex-athletes, Solomon and her colleagues watched tapes of their on-camera interviews. She wanted to see if they conveyed their own experiences with insight and enthusiasm or with the clichés that can be deadly during a broadcast.
Ideally, NBC wanted someone "passionate about that sport and the Olympics," she says, adding that the hoped-for "incredible knowledge" of an obscure sport can be gained through diligent studying.
No one's getting rich: "None of these guys covering the more obscure Olympic events are making much money—between $5,000 and $10,000 total and that's for all the weeks of prep, too," says a sports agent in the know. The payoff: Their exposure might lead to bigger and better things.
Being versatile means being flexible. Bob Papa did water polo play-by-play in 2000 but was shifted to boxing this time around. So Solomon needed a new water-polo person. Having hired Julie Swail, captain of the U.S. silver-medal-winning team in 2000, to be the analyst, she had an expert in the sport but one who was inexperienced in the booth.
So NBC paired her with Mike Emrick, who knew nothing about water polo but is a veteran hockey voice. (Solomon says their different backgrounds are not a concern: "We go for the best play-by-play and the best analyst and then presume a chemistry will develop.")
Solomon believes that veteran announcers who, like Emrick, are trying new sports provide enthusiasm and, because they're learning about the sport, just like the viewer.
The Summer Games, with 28 sports, are more difficult to set up than the Winter Games. "We have to use our resources wisely," Solomon says. "We're asking a lot of everybody."
The Trampoline Expert
Nobody personifies that versatility concept better than John Dockery, who is contributing on tae kwon do, shooting, fencing, canoeing/kayaking and archery. But many are being called on to cover unfamiliar terrain.
Siri Lindley is a champion triathlete and seemed like a natural choice as analyst for the triathlon. But flying her to Greece for an event that required only two days of coverage seemed an unwise extravagance—until Lindley mentioned that she had played field hockey in college. Suddenly, she had an extra role that made it all worthwhile.
Freestyle-skiing champ Trace Worthington, who has Winter Olympics broadcasting under his belt, wanted to add the Summer Games to his résumé. Turns out, he has a sideline business featuring trampoline stunts, so NBC thought he'd be a natural as the analyst for the trampoline-competition.
"I learned how to do the trampoline so I could understand it for the business," Worthington says, "and I also employ some of the best in the world." But to make the trip worthwhile, he will also be a reporter at the rowing venue. He says he'll do homework but won't need the in-depth expertise that an analyst needs. "I'll do the research that any reporter would do for a story," he says, adding that there's not much competition for this role. It's true what he says: "There aren't many rowing reporter specialists out there."
Turning a specialist into a reporter or analyst took work. For instance, Solomon says, Kiraly is the greatest beach-volleyball player of all time, but, as a rookie analyst, he needed to learn to be concise, since he would have 10 seconds instead of a minute to make his point.
(Although much of the coverage will be taped, Solomon says everything will be done live-to-tape and edit fixes will be used only in an extreme situation; she believes second takes would actually be harder on inexperienced announcers, who would be unable to properly fake the spontaneous emotion.)
Beyond all the help NBC provided, "everyone was hired with the expectation that they'd do their own homework," Solomon says. All the announcers were expected to talk to the appropriate sport federations, watch tapes, go to events and talk to the athletes.
An example of fierce commitment is Pat Croce, who eagerly volunteered to add tae kwon do analysis to his basketball duties. He has been a martial-arts expert since his teen years and is a fourth-degree black belt in karate and a first-degree black belt in tae kwon do, with various competition trophies to his name.
Combined with his broadcasting skills (he's a motivational speaker who will host his own syndicated talk show this fall), that alone should have been enough. But, after signing on, Croce took a course and became a certified AAU, Olympic-level tae kwon do referee, simply to enhance his understanding of the sport.
Clement has amply demonstrated his diligence at badminton. Says Solomon, "Bill has done so much homework he's really overdoing it."
All About Shuttlecocks
Indeed, while his playing experience enables him to succinctly explain the effects of slice shots on a badminton shuttlecock, Clement also can rattle off astonishing factoids, such as that a shuttlecock reaches up to 200 mph in its first 10 feet before slowing down.
Another fact: Although the average badminton match lasts one hour and 16 minutes, versus three hours for the average men's tennis match, a badminton player covers 4 miles of ground in that time, and tennis players cover only 2 miles.
"When I was playing," he admits, "I certainly didn't know all that."
By the time the Olympics are over, viewers will know even more.
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