“Get your breakfast. Get your lunch, and get comfy,” Rebecca Lowe told viewers at the beginning of NBC’s opening day of coverage of the Barclays Premier League 2013/14 season.
For the next 7.5 hours, presenter Lowe alongside analysts Robbie Mustoe and Robbie Earle led us through a flawless presentation of Premier League Live, the new NBC pre-match show followed by Liverpool-Stoke, Arsenal-Aston Villa and Swansea-Manchester United, with plenty of pre-match, half-time and post-match analysis and interviews to keep soccer fans glued to their TV sets.
Never before has the Premier League been presented so professionally, intelligently and with such heart and soul as it was today. The coverage was the next best thing to actually being there in England and Wales.
It wasn’t perfect. There were flubs, technical difficulties and syncing issues, as well as embarrassing On Demand screw-ups by Xfinity, who are part of the same corporate family as NBC. But overall, on their first day of broadcast, it was a positive performance by NBC Sports.
As soon as the live broadcast of Premier League Live began at seven o’clock on this Saturday morning, the difference was immediately felt. “Welcome to the new home of the Premier League,” read the voiceover as NBC Sports Network pulled us immediately into the broadcast, giving us a very newsy and real-time feel as they showed live camera shots of the English football grounds at Anfield, Emirates Stadium and Liberty Stadium.
After their opening discussion, the team of Lowe, Mustoe and Earle switched to reporter Ian Irving live from Anfield where he gave us the latest team news. This was soon followed by pre-match interviews with managers Brendan Rodgers and Mark Hughes, answering a few questions each. The anticipation and suspense for the opening game grew, and everyone involved did a superb job of making us feel like we were part of the experience — all the way to the teams lining up in the Anfield tunnel.
The next few minutes were the most poignant of the day. With the players in the tunnel, Lowe completely respected the sanctity of the time and place, and remained practically silent to let us listen in to the players preparing before they walked onto the rain-soaked Merseyside pitch. As the cameras followed the teams out of the tunnel, there was an absolutely remarkable camera shot as we saw an aerial view from high above Anfield with the rain pelting down. For me, this was a goosebumps moment as it made me feel like I was right there.
The cameras then brought us back to the Anfield pitch as the players did their customary handshakes, which was followed by the Liverpool anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone” being sung by the Liverpool faithful. The way NBC Sports respected the singing of the anthem spoke volumes of how they understand club traditions.
Instead of going to commercial, like FOX Soccer used to do when they had the Premier League rights, NBC Sports aired the entire “You’ll Never Walk Alone” anthem without talking over it for one second (unlike BT Sports who interrupted the anthem halfway through by talking about team lineups).
Whether you love or hate Liverpool, NBC’s decision to air the anthem was commendable.
As soon as the Liverpool-Stoke City match kicked off, the presentation of the remainder of the Premier League coverage was decent. While Premier League Live was flawless, the first half of the Liverpool-Stoke match was excellent except that the audio wasn’t perfectly synced up with the video. Even though the audio was only off by a split-second, the result was that you would hear the commentator’s immediate reaction to a shot, goal or near miss a split second before you’d actually see it. As a result, it reduced the excitement of being able to react to a key moment at the same time as the commentator.
The exact same thing happened in the first half of the Swansea-Manchester United match. More about that later.
With the match between Liverpool and Stoke under away, it took a little while to get accustomed to the on-screen graphics by NBC. The ‘LIVE’ and hashtags in the top left corner were distracting and unnecessary, in my opinion. But I did like that the select number of ads that were displayed during the match only took up the real estate near the top left of the screen instead of running across the bottom. That allowed the viewer at home to concentrate on what was happening on the pitch.
The experience of watching Liverpool-Stoke followed by Arsenal-Aston Villa, in addition to NBC’s pre-match, half-time and post-match analysis, was enjoyable. The way that Mustoe and Earle dissected the key incidents in the games was solid. The chemistry between them both was strong, and it was refreshing to be able to listen to their viewpoints and analysis without them putting their foot in their mouth — unlike the uneven analysis and chuckle-fest that we’ve been accustomed to from FOX Soccer in previous years. On top of that, the integration of the Premier League’s new goal-line technology into the live feeds from the Premier League TWI/IMG crews was wonderful.
The Arsenal-Aston Villa match sprung a surprise as a rotating latest scores graphic appeared in the top right corner after the 9th minute, which remained there for the majority of the remainder of the game. I can understand if some soccer fans are upset by this, but I actually liked it. It was an informative yet unobtrusive way to keep track of the scores of the other games, and gave me an incentive to change the channel (if I wished) to a more intriguing game. The benefit to NBC Sports is that they have rights to every single match, so it’s not as if someone is going to tune to a different network like they would have done in the past. As it was, the Arsenal-Aston Villa game held my attention throughout the entire 90 minutes, even with my laptops running Sunderland-Fulham and Norwich-Everton within eyesight.
In the future, when 12:30pm ET matches are aired on NBC, NBC Sports will need to work on a smoother transition from the NBC Sports Network 12-12:30pm broadcast to the 12:30pm game on NBC. It almost felt like the Swansea-Man United game was coming on the same channel right after the close of the NBC Sports Network broadcast, which of course it wasn’t. But it just felt strange and not seamless.
While the transition was awkward, the first minute or two of the NBC broadcast of Swansea-Manchester United was the low point of the day with Lowe explaining that there were technical difficulties in getting the audio feed from commentator Arlo White and co-commentator Lee Dixon, who were on-site at Swansea’s ground in South Wales. While NBC tried to sort out the issues behind the scenes, we were then able to listen to the international feed until the feed from White-Dixon was ready. Then there was an awkward silence in the switchover from the international feed to NBC’s commentators, and we heard White saying to someone in the background that “I’m going to practice anyway” before moments later he began his audio commentary.
For a broadcast on over-the-air network television, the technical difficulties were an unfortunate start to such a high profile match.
The audio issues with the syncing of the audio with the video reared their ugly head again in the first half, which again reduced the excitement levels just a tad. These were compounded a couple of times in the broadcast with an echo effect when White spoke, but that only happened twice and the issue was quickly rectified.
Audio issues aside, today’s commentary by Arlo White was excellent. He was confident in his commentary, filling in the broadcast with valuable details when there were brief opportunities in the action. Plus, his questions and interaction with Lee Dixon were beneficial. Dixon was informative and I particularly enjoyed his anecdote about playing against Ryan Giggs and describing him as a “quiet assassin,” which added tangible insight to the commentary.
Other than a flub of calling Swansea goalkeeper Michel Vorm “Michael,” Dixon was a worthy combination alongside White.
During the match, the benefit of having NBC’s commentators at the ground instead of calling the game off the monitor was crucial. For example, when Swansea scored a goal in the first half, White was able to tell us before the ball went into the back of the net that “it won’t count” because the assistant referee had raised his flag for offside. Watching the match on TV, the assistant referee was off camera.
Overall, the way that the presentation, graphics, music and coverage of the Premier League was presented to viewers certainly raised the bar today in the United States. The good news for NBC Sports is that the difficulties that they faced were all technical issues that can be easily rectified.
The Premier League season is a marathon, not a sprint. Just as professional soccer teams need to pace themselves for the entire season, the same applies to NBC Sports as they begin their 10-month coverage of the first season. Mustoe and Earle will need to keep their analysis informative, thought provoking and refreshing so that viewers don’t subconsciously tune them out as background noise. Hopefully they can continue to establish their punditry as a cliche-free zone.
Off camera, NBC Sports has a lot of work ahead of them to work with Xfinity to repair the damage from the On Demand broadcasts that were a comedy of errors.
NBC Sports still has a lot of work ahead of them. So far, their decision to hire authentic voices to commentate and analyze the English Premier League has been vindicated. The Premier League experience on NBC Sports has gotten off to a bright start. Hopefully the rest of America will follow.