Rating NBC Sports’ coverage of the Premier League on US TV and internet

With 100 games of the 2013/14 Premier League season completed, it’s an opportune time to rate how NBC Sports is doing in its first season of its three season deal in broadcasting the Premier League to a US audience.

The acquisition of EPL US media rights by NBC Sports from FOX Sports has raised the bar on the TV coverage of English soccer in the States. But despite the positive steps, there are still areas of improvement needed that can make the coverage better, which will help bring more viewers to the sport.

In reviewing NBC’s work thus far, I’ve divided their coverage into 9 areas — covering everything from their web coverage and online streaming to TV production, and more.

Now that we’re 25% into the season, here’s how NBC Sports is doing so far:

Production and presentation  

NBC’s production and presentation of the Premier League is exemplary. Never before have viewers in the United States had such a polished and professional experience of watching the EPL on US television. Everything from the studio set, to the camera angles and on-screen graphics are exceptional. NBC gives the Premier League (and viewers of the Premier League games) the reverence it deserves.

Pros:

1. The studio is clean, large and inviting. The open space doesn’t make the broadcast feel stuffy or cramped. Plus the large studio space gives the production crew options for different camera angles to keep the broadcast fresh and exciting.

2. The background music that’s used is unobtrusive and adds to the overall warm-and-fuzzy feeling you get when watching and listening to the broadcast.

3. The incorporation of video such as aerial footage of the stadium, players inside the tunnel before they go out on to the pitch, and fans singing anthems in their entirety before games kick-off has been a joy for soccer fans both new and old.

4. No crawl across the bottom of the screen.

5. The use of a score ticker in the right corner of the Saturday 10am ET game on NBCSN has been a revelation. It doesn’t detract from the game. It can be incredibly helpful to stay on top of the scores from the other games, and it can be useful if you want to switch channels for a second to see a goal from elsewhere (particularly during a break in play in the 10am ET NBCSN game).

6. The pre-match and post-match Premier League Live show features sound analysis and news without the joke fest or shallow coverage that FOX Soccer previously produced. There is now a reason to tune in early and to stay tuned in after Premier League matches.

7. The on-screen graphics by NBC including the score box in the top left corner are professional. They’re larger than what we’ve been accustomed to in previous years from other broadcasters, but I have no complaints.

8. Premier League matches have been given the reverence they deserve. The broadcasts start on time (compared to FOX Soccer who sometimes started “live” matches 2-3 minutes after they actually kicked off). Plus, when matches are over, NBC have switched over to other broadcasts where games are being played, which has been a small but wonderful treat this season.

Cons: 

1. NBC has experienced issues syncing up the video feed with audio feed for the games it has shown where they’ve used their own commentators (Arlo White along with a co-commentator). Thankfully those early season hiccups seem to have been resolved now.

2. The use of the two English gentlemen from Football Four Eyes at the beginning of one of their Premier League Live shows earlier this season was misguided. No one knows who these people are. They’re not funny nor are they informative.

Rating: A+

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Commentary

When NBC Sports announced the commentary team earlier this year as well as their plans on how it would operate, there were few complaints from fans or pundits. There were, however, a lot of question marks from soccer fans who either weren’t familiar with the talent, or were skeptical. Let’s review how they’ve done thus far.

Pros:

1. The use of the commentators on site featuring Arlo White/Lee Dixon for Saturday matches, and Arlo White/Graeme Le Saux for Sunday games, has been a breath of fresh air, giving the commentaries a professional feel and remaining topical for American viewers (when necessary). It’s obvious how hard these three men work in preparing for games. And the balance of commentary and statistics is perfect. There’s no using stats here as a crutch unlike other commentators.

2. Arlo White’s temporary replacement, Steve Bower, has been brilliant. The former MUTV commentator has stepped right in where White left off (while he’s commentating MLS games). Bower, if anything, is even better than White. He’s more incisive, less talkative and has an instant camaraderie with Dixon and Le Saux.

3. The decision to bring Tim Howard into the commentary booth was risky, but it paid off for NBC with a low key and rather uneventful co-commentary where he was able to add his insight particularly regarding Joe Hart.

4. NBC’s use of their own commentators for 2-3 games per weekend coupled with their decision to use the TWI/IMG commentators for the other games has been a perfect balance.

5. The commentaries have been so practically flawless that there have been so few criticisms this season, which has been so refreshing. Soccer fans in the United States can now concentrate on the games without annoying distractions.

Cons: 

1. Other than the technical glitches and audio/video syncing issues early in the season, I have no complaints.

Rating: A-

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Analysis

Other than production and presentation, the other area that NBC had the greatest opportunity to improve on FOX Soccer’s presentation of the Premier League was in the area of analysis and punditry.

Pros:

1. The team of Rebecca Lowe, Kyle Martino, Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe are professionals who are focused on making sure that every word they utter matters. They’re not talking to fill space. Their words are meaningful.

2. The chemistry between the team feels like they’ve been working together for years. No one is trying to out-do another person on the broadcast. You get the feeling that they’re all working together to inform the viewer.

3. It’s clear to see that Martino, Earle and Mustoe work incredibly hard in watching and researching games and stats, as well as working hard in rehearsals to stay on top of their game. There have been very few flubs so far this season.

4. Rebecca Lowe is fantastic. She’s an ideal presenter to bring the Premier League into the homes of America. Her knowledge of the game is exceptional. She’s a great complement to Mustoe/Earle/Martino. And she keeps us listening in to her every word each week.

5. Kyle Martino has been a revelation this season. He’s come along so much so quickly from his days at FOX Soccer. At the same time, Earle and Mustoe have been consistent and a pleasure to watch, too.

Cons: 

1. The analysis by Earle, Mustoe and Martino is beginning to become stale. It’s not that what they’re saying is wrong or misinformed (as was so often the case with FOX Soccer’s Premier League analysis). But the analysis has become too conservative and predictable. After an impressive beginning to the season, it’s rare now that you’ll hear an enlightening piece of analysis of something you didn’t already think or see in the game yourself. The trio of pundits are oftentimes reinforcing salient points without taking the analysis to the next level, where a Gary Neville or Jamie Carragher might reveal something to us that we didn’t know or see.

2. Every time I see the trio of pundits standing in front of the jumbo TV monitor to share some tactical insight, I cringe. It’s not what they’re saying that makes me feel uncomfortable, but the whole contraption of the large monitor with antiquated touch-screen knobs and controls that doesn’t work for me. It’s awkward, clunky and the angle of a TV camera showing a TV monitor doesn’t work. Plus, I don’t want to see a shot of the two analysts standing either side of the monitor showing me the screen. I just want to see the screen itself, so I can see what they’re showing me (and hear their voices).

NBC probably spent a ton of money on the software, but there are far better pieces of technology out there that bring the viewer “into the action.” This way, it’d be easier for the viewers at home to watch and listen instead of being distracted by the method of how the analysis is being presented.

3. I’m concerned that the talent are starting to get burned out. It’s a marathon of a season, and Saturdays are a grueling 12 hour day for the NBC personalities. But mistakes are beginning to creep in, particularly small ones on Sunday morning broadcasts (presumably with the cast feeling a little tired after a long Saturday). The team are holding it together, but I wonder if there’s an opportunity to bring in some new faces now and again just to give the talent a break, so they can recharge their batteries. The key will be finding personalities who fit NBC’s ethos and who don’t downgrade the quality of the Premier League Live show.

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