Before the NBC video feed of the cross-country skiing events at the 2010 Vancouver Games reaches a single American household, it must first flow through a cramped, spare, six by eight foot room perched above the bleachers at Whistler Olympic Park.
Inside, off two small monitors, is where announcers Al Trautwig and Chad Salmela call the action, with the help of their three producers and researchers. No room for lunchboxes—those are outside the door.
Fifty minutes before the start of the men’s 4×10 k relay, Trautwig and Salmela were standing outside in a light drizzle, next to the lunchboxes, engaged in an animated discussion about their picks for the race. Salmela thought Sweden will be tough to beat; Trautwig was pushing Italy. Salmela won the argument, and good thing, too—the Italians ended up ninth on the day.
Nicknames to Tendencies
Just like for the athletes and coaches, the work for the broadcasters begins far ahead of the start of the race.
The night before, and even the morning of, there’s plenty of research to be done, “anything from nicknames, to tendencies,” says R.J. Broadhead, who does the play-by-play for the Canadian television station CTV. He said he prepares for about three hours the evening prior to each event.
In the CTV booth, experience is varied. Broadhead normally calls hockey—though he has been doing more cross-country over the last year and a half, in the lead-up to the Games. But he also has former Canadian National Team coach Jack Sasseville and former Olympic champion Beckie Scott doing the color commentary.
“[Sasseville] sees it from a coach’s perspective; [Scott] sees it from an athlete’s perspective,” Broadhead said. “It’s a nice contrast.”
Next door, in the NBC booth, Salmela is a voluble former elite-level biathlete who now coaches skiing at The College of St. Scholastica, in Minnesota. Trautwig’s realm is mainly basketball and hockey, but he is also a 13-time Olympic broadcasting veteran, having called the cross-country events in Torino and Salt Lake City.
Trautwig and Salmela are aided by two researchers, D.C. Robbins and Hugh Cooke, who sit at the back of the booth, internet connection at the ready. Wikipedia and foreign newspapers are especially handy when an underdog or a newcomer pops a big result—or even makes an appearance at the front, like Ben Koons did last week.
When that happens, the researchers do some digging online, then pass notes up to Trautwig and Salmela, who say they use about 20 percent of what they’re given.
But the researchers aren’t just glorified Googlers. During the men’s 50 k classic, Cooke even had a stopwatch at the ready, which he used to clock one of Petter Northug’s ski switches (seven seconds, for the record).
Taking What They’re Given
While the broadcast booth has a decent view of the stadium, Trautwig and Salmela end up calling most of the races from the two TV screens on the desk in front of them, which is cluttered with water bottles, McDonald’s coffee cups, and handwritten notes from Cooke and Robbins.
One of the TV screens shows what is called the “world feed”—the video shot by Olympic camera crews, then relayed to dozens of stations around the globe—while the other gives live splits from the race.
Everyone gets the same footage—NBC’s video feed is identical to Eurosport’s. Broadcasters can supplement with their own cameras—CTV, for example, has two crews in the stadium that can get shots of Alex Harvey or Devon Kershaw when they race past, but NBC doesn’t have anything extra.
“We’re just taking what they give us here—we’re at the mercy of the world feed,” said Salmela.
That makes it “critical” for the U.S. athletes to ski well, because, according to Salmela, “if the Americans aren’t in it, the world feed’s not going to show it—and we’ve got nothing to talk about.”
Keeping the Americans in the picture isn’t the only challenge for the NBC crew, though.
With coverage usually sliced, diced, and shortened to fit whatever time allotment they get from the head honchos in Vancouver, the announcers have to fit their live calls into pre-arranged chunks, called “segments”—a process Salmela likens to “building a house in a day, and drawing the plans while you’re building it.”
If they mess up, it’s not the end of the world—they can go back and voice over key sections later. But most of the time, Trautwig and Salmela take only take one crack at the calls, and that’s when they’re live—even if the program isn’t slated to appear until hours later.
The Moment of Truth
Cross country skiing doesn’t have the same kind of constant action as a sport like hockey, for example, where players are always making shots, passes, and body checks.
That showed during a commercial break halfway through the 50 k—the longest and slowest event of the Games—when Trautwig and Salmela were chagrined to find out just how much racing remained.
“We’re going ’til noon? Somebody throw us a life vest!” Salmela joked.
But despite the Herculean task of finding something to talk about for over two hours of monotonous pack racing, Trautwig maintained that calling skiing isn’t anything special.
“I think every game is the same, and you just have to wait for the moment that defines it,” he said. “There’s going to come that moment of truth.”
True to his profession, Salmela couldn’t help but chime in himself.
“It’s our job to, just, try to portray that accurately, and warmly,” he said.
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Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.
March 2, 2010 at 11:52 am
Too bad they can’t find two people who actually know something about our sport.
I have to admit the coverage was the best NBC has ever done. Now they just need to have live streams of all the events online, like the rest of the world.
March 2, 2010 at 12:01 pm
I think having one guy in the business (Trautwig) and one guy in the field (Salmela) is a respectable combination. Man there are a lot of people here who think everyone but themselves don’t know anything. That goes for both negative and positive comments.
Yes the comparisons to NASCAR and Football seem silly, but they can’t get all techy and expect any chance to gain interest outside of the tiny XC community.
March 2, 2010 at 12:09 pm
It’s in our best interest that the announcers try to explain all of the nuances of the sport in the most general way. I would rather have Salmela present it as a cool sport for kids to try than to present it as a nerdy, techno-wieney sport by agonizing over what teams are using hairies, zeros, or klister.
Besides, most of the hardcore fans were watching coverage off http://www.fromsport.com and only watching NBC to make fun of Chad’s little hat.
March 2, 2010 at 3:14 pm
From my perspective it appeared that Nordic had better coverage in the U.S. than did Alpine. Seems that the Oprah demographic likes the cross country sports and since alpine was prime time, they got much, much less. It was easily predictable if one of the alpiners was a contender or a crasher. Because NBC was skipping so many bibs in the race, once a person’s splits went outside a second, you knew they weren’t going to make it down the hill. Conversely, NBC covered the Nordic races from start to finish, albeit with plenty of commercials. The 50k coverage was awesome and exposed many, many youngsters to our amazing sport. Maybe that will pay off in 20 years?
March 2, 2010 at 4:28 pm
I thought the commentary was decent, far better than in past years anyway. The thing I couldn’t stand was the way they kept cutting away to other events or studio features during their live coverage, or kept skipping over large sections of the race when it was tape delayed. So I just wound up watching it on fromsport when I was home (50k only), or via our good friend BasilBrush when I was at work (everything else).
March 2, 2010 at 5:19 pm
MT- ‘Contenders and crashers’…great stuff! Hope you don’t mind if I borrow that one.
Likewise, I found NBC coverage formulaic.
America uber alles: Any event where an American medals gets a camera…and why not? We had more of them than any other nation. I was stunned, as I think most viewers were.
If it bleeds, it leads: Any event where an American wrecks gets a camera. Spectacular foreign crashes are good tv as well. Everything is in bounds, even the blood-stained face of a dead athlete after hitting steel at 90+ mph…perfect for primetime.
Sex can sell anything (my college roommate, a marketing major, clued me in on this one): Any event with some hottie in it will always see air time (ie: Lindsey Vonn. Julia Mancuso has a point…and the same number of medals). Likewise, figure skating gets front-to-back coverage (no pun intended). They even have a camera on these people while walking in the
building, like that’s necessary. There is always some soap-opera drama going on with one of those babes, so it never hurts to mix that in with the sequins, either.
Network coverage was better than it typically is, but that isn’t saying much. My wife walked out in disgust during the women’s 30K, the commercials and programming detours were so maddening.
March 2, 2010 at 8:32 pm
If I had a choice, I’d opt for the Eurosport English crew – Mike Dixon and Pat Winterbottom (?) or even the highstrung David Goldstrom. But NBC it was, and the time alloted to coverage was much better than previous years – if one could put up with 2 mins of skiing and 5 of ads. Chad Salmela wasn’t bad at all, even if he isn’t quite up on the World Cup circuit, and, most important, he kept Trautwig in check most of the time. Al Trautwig’s conscious looking for the dramatic moment undermines things, leading him to ignorant declarations and repeated stereotyping (“the big red machine,” the Scandinavian something or other, etc.). It’s what he’s been doing since those canned pieces at Nagano. Because x-c skiing doesn’t get televised in the U.S., there are no established broadcasters to draw upon come Olympics time. But much better this time around. Even my 89 year old father watched the 50k.
March 2, 2010 at 10:38 pm
1AaronTarnow – Mar 2, 2010 at 11:52 am
“Too bad they can’t find two people who actually know something about our sport.”
Yeah, too bad NBC couldn’t land Aaron Tarnow for the job. His 64th place finish in the Men’s 30-34 age division at CX Nationals would have been all the credentials required for the job. Instead they hired some former former biathlon team member. What do biathletes know about cross-country skiing anyway? Don’t they run and swim or something?
March 2, 2010 at 11:00 pm
We should look at how far US coverage has come since 1976 which was probably 10 minutes. The Trautwig/Salmela combo was great. Sometimes I felt Trautwig was trying to catch up with Salmela’s knowledge and hoping to add something of equal importance. But overall, I liked them very much as a team and would like to see them continue covering xc outside of the Olympics.
March 2, 2010 at 11:16 pm
Better than previous? Maybe. But it was still a joke. Why we can’t watch what the rest of the world is watching LIVE is beyond me. It was so much easier and so much better and so much more enjoyable just to watch fromsport…or watch the replay…with no sound.
March 3, 2010 at 8:32 am
cnrdgrn – Mar 2, 2010 at 11:16 pm
“Better than previous? Maybe. But it was still a joke. Why we can’t watch what the rest of the world is watching LIVE is beyond me.”
actually, most of the coverage WAS shown live during the daytime. Only a handful of events were reduced, edited, and put in primetime.Unbelievable really, considering how little coverage nordic skiing has received in the past.
March 3, 2010 at 8:48 am
Most of the coverage was not live. Even during the day there was a delay of as much as 2-3 hours. Much of the curling appeared to be live, but even the hockey during the day had a delay. I was watching alleged live coverage of USA-Switzerland to get into the semis, couldn’t watch the third period and when I got back to work, the people who saw updates on-line informed me that the U.S. did win, while I thought there was still 20 minutes to go. Only the semis against Finland and the gold medal game against Canada were actual live coverage.
NBC does have us on lockdown, business as usual, nothing to risky during the day so they don’t sacrifice their ratings during prime time. NBC’s business model obviously prevents them from allowing live feeds all day. Which does suck. I missed the fromsport, sounds like that’s what I’ll need to do next time.
One more note: I was watching the 50k in a sports bar, all the TVs on cross country, and when the last two kilometers played out, all eyes were glued to Teichman and Northug battling. That was a new one for me and even gave me a small sense of what it must be like in some of the better locales for sports.
March 3, 2010 at 2:40 pm
Yes, there was some live coverage. Most of it was lame. I think the Nordic Combined team race was live. We won a silver medal. Mighty nice. I was watching NBC. I would say there was less than 1o minutes of actual racing…and more than that of commercials. I gave up on NBC after that. Its not like NBC was out there with their cameras…everything we saw came from Eurosport. Yet NBC locked us out of any Eurosport feed…except for hacked feeds like fromsport. Hopefully by Sochi…with a little more technology…we just won’t need NBC any more and we can actually watch skiers race…which is what the rest of the world watches.
March 3, 2010 at 7:19 pm
Chad Salmela did a KNOCK UP Job. The enthusiasm he brought to the broadcasts had many friends and co-workers of mine, with no prior experience with XC sking, asking me when the next event would be on. Chad is knowledgeable and has great delivery and timing. I would love to see more coverage of XC on American television, with Chad at the helm- it is one important step toward broad acceptance, if not participation, in this ‘fringe’ sport.
You can’t blame Chad and company for NBC’s shortcomings. NBC Olympic coverage will always be formulaic docu-drama material. Unfortunately, I think 2010 has come and gone as the heyday of live XC coverage in mainstream media. With the time delay from Sochi, I wouldn’t expect any of this stuff to come to us Live.
March 4, 2010 at 10:55 am
When will Chad Salmela finally pronounce Kristen Stormer Steira’s name correctly??! That’s ” Stur-mir Sty-ruh” not “Stormer Steer-ruh” like he keeps saying ever since the first races back in November on Universal Sports channel. It drives me nuts. Especially since I hear the correct way the NRK announcers
Jann Post and Togeir Bjorn say it when I can record Norwegian TV. They are the best.
March 4, 2010 at 12:36 pm
So true. The norwegian announcers are really good at pronouncing the names of the norwegian skiers. Though it’s annoying how they pronounce all of the italian names with a thick norwegian accent. Uncanny.