Grading NBC's Performance Covering the EPL

Ryan BaileyFeatured ColumnistSeptember 17, 2013

Grading NBC's Performance Covering the EPL

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    Earlier this year, NBC stunned Premier League rights-holders Fox and ESPN by taking away their coverage with a successful $250 million bid. They committed not only to showing every single Premier League match, but a broad range of supplementary programming. 

    So, how have they been handling the responsibility so far? The first semester is only four games old, but B/R has drawn up a report card to see how NBC have performed in their first few weeks.

Pundits

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    The BBC may boast the two Alans (Shearer and Hansen) in their studio, but NBC have pinched the two Robbies (Earle and Mustoe) from ESPN.

    Former Wimbledon midfielder Earle has been in the mainstream punditry wilderness since he was fired from ITV for a World Cup ticket scandal, but he mixes some decent surface analysis with some accessible and compassionate moments. "Sometimes you wanted to give Jonjo a hug," he said after Shelvey's mixed performance on Monday night for Swansea against his former side Liverpool. It's true, you did. 

    Mustoe seems the more tactically aware of the two, offering sound insights into formations and player mentality. He was spot on, for example, when he said that Jonjo Shelvey needed to get his confidence up with some short passes rather than trying to impress against his former employers on Monday night.   

    The two pundits have an excellent rapport with anchor Rebecca Lowe, lending the entire broadcast an appropriately "English" feel. The team is slightly let down, however, when Kyle Martino is thrown into the fray. It may be important for an American voice to be heard by an American audience, but his analysis often feels highly superficial, and not grounded in knowledge and experience like the Robbies. Martino knows the game, but perhaps he knows the North American game a little better. 

    Grade: B 

Commentary

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    Leicester-born broadcaster Arlo White has left his role as NBC's primary MLS commentator to play the lead in their Premier League coverage. He is backed up by either Graham Le Saux or Lee Dixon, with the latter seemingly providing the more fruitful partnership.

    The team may not have the chemistry that Ian Darke and Steve McManaman shared on ESPN last season—and Darke is regarded with affection by US audiences thanks to his work on major USMNT games—but White is a more astute commentator, while Le Saux and Dixon lend authenticity and experience to the mix.

    NBC win points for having a dedicated commentary team on the ground, rather then just using Sky feeds like Fox Soccer used to. If they continue to successfully avoid employing either Ian Wright or Gus Johnson, their commentary credibility will continue.

    Grade: A- 

Ratings

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    Premier League football cannot hold a candle to the ratings achieved by American sports on US TV, but NBC's ratings have exceeded all expectations.

    According to Advertising Age, the five games broadcast on NBC and NBCSN on the opening Saturday drew in 3.3 million viewers. That's a whopping 52 percent increase on the same five games shown the previous year by ESPN and Fox Soccer. 

    Manchester Utd's opener against Swansea drew a crowd of 792,000, making it the most-viewed opening weekend match in US broadcast history.

    Furthermore, The Hollywood Reporter says the Red Devils' clash with Chelsea reaped NBCSN's highest weekday ratings since the Olympics. For such a deathly boring game, that's impressive. 

    Grade: A

Breadth of Coverage

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    NBC's greatest virtue is its breadth of coverage. The network are offering every single minute of every Premier League game either on TV or online.

    It's an unprecedented move, and one that will open up an American audience to teams outside of the top four. This is where rival broadcaster BeIn Sports fails: Their Spanish coverage consists almost exclusively of Real Madrid and Barcelona games, and PSG (who are owned by the same parent company) always dominate their Ligue 1 coverage.

    NBC also win plaudits for their commitment to spreading the Premier League word on their main national broadcast channel. A few weeks ago, they even showed Crystal Palace take on Sunderland. Sure, it was interrupted by a press conference about Syria from President Obama, but how many of us thought an unglamorous tie in the dingy surroundings of Selhurst Park would ever be shown live an American national TV? Look how far we've come!

    Their soccer zenith will be reached on the final day of this season, when they have promised to air all 10 final games simultaneously on 10 different channels. Fans of the Kardashians will be disappointed when they get Norwich City on E!. 

    NBC only get slightly marked down because a lot of viewers technically cannot see every single game. As a Time Warner subscriber, I get the option of three Saturday 3pm kick-off matches, but for no particular reason, I am not permitted to stream the others on the NBC Sports Live Extra online app. 

    Grade: A

     

Highlights and Non-Match Coverage

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    When NBC purchased their behemoth Premiership package, they also committed to over 600 hours of original programming. 

    They started in the summer with some preview pieces aimed at introducing an American audience to the game, while helping them pick a team. The shows, hosted by Rebecca Lowe and Kyle Martino at a bar in New York City, were a little cringeworthy for English eyes, but were a useful, engaging and well-produced tool for new fans.

    NBC's main highlights show is Match of the Day, a two-hour Saturday night broadcast that mimics the BBC show of the same name. Viewers get extended highlights of seven matches and the studio expertise of Lowe, Earle, Mustoe and Martino. The highlights are usually more extended versions than the BBC would show, but the punditry has been a little staid at times (perhaps because the punditry team is tired from doing so much every weekend).

    One of the best shows on offer is Barclays Premier League Review, a highlights package put together by the league each week that is loaded with stats and more condensed highlights. NBC should do more to promote it, and should stop throwing it around their schedule. 

    Perhaps the only disappointing non-match coverage has been during NBC's non-soccer dedicated programming. Following Chelsea's trip to Manchester Utd, for example, the channel switched immediately to The Crossover, a show with American talent who clearly do not specialise in the beautiful game. It felt uninformative and insincere when they tried to analyse the action. 

    Grade: B+ 

Accessibility

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    The key to NBC's success is that they have made everybody feel welcome. New fans have been catered to with dedicated programming, while the commentators and pundits have been careful to avoid esoteric language that makes NFL coverage virtually impenetrable for those who have not grown up watching it. 

    Bringing in new Premier League fans without condescending the old ones is a difficult balancing act, but NBC has been doing a good job. The introductory commercials with Jason Sudeikis were perfectly executed, while attempts to endear the biggest TV market in the country—New York—with billboards and subway trains were well judged. 

    Grade: A

Conclusion

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    So far, NBC have given an unprecedented level of coverage, delivered in a pleasing manner with bloopers kept to a minimum. They have resisted the temptation to add advertising tickers during play, and have not succumbed to Gus Johnson-itis: The need to add a superfluous American voice to a quintessentially European product.

    Frankly, we could have expected that NBC would do a good job, based on how much they have improved Formula 1 coverage since taking over from Speed TV. 

    With grades like this, NBC is going to get a very good scholarship at an Ivy League school.

    Overall grade: A