Review of NBC’s coverage of 2015/16 Premier League season

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Nervousness surrounded American soccer fandom in late August of last year. After two years of outstanding coverage of the Premier League in the United States, it was thought in many quarters that NBC Sports was going to lose the rights to the league to FOX Sports or ESPN. Instead, relief enveloped the soccer community when it was announced NBC had not only won the rights renewal, but had received an extended package length of six years through to 2022. This gives NBC the ability to devote an increasing amount of resources on Premier League coverage since the previous three-year deal was short and didn’t allow for much long-term planning.

Still, in its third and final year of its first Premier League rights package, NBC Sports took its coverage to a new level for the 2015/16 season. The airing of an additional 10am-Noon ET kickoff on USA Network, a cable channel in more American homes than ESPN, has been a welcome boost. And the ratings on USA have continued to increase over the course of the season, with a respectable 491,000 for the recent Leicester-Everton match.

While NBC has devoted a lot of programming time to the Premier League in its first two seasons, the overall production and tightness of the segments seemed crisper this season. The continued use of NBCSN as the primary channel for Premier League programming, the addition of USA Network and a more extensive schedule of matches on NBC over-the-air and the continued use of CNBC when scheduling conflicts were in play, gave the league more exposure on four networks that have extensive distribution throughout the United States.

Arlo White, Graeme Le Saux and Lee Dixon

The on-site commentary teams continued to be very strong this season. Arlo White showed an incredible amount of professionalism in calling games involving the club he’s long supported – Leicester City. White did well as a temporary US-based fill-in for Rebecca Lowe when she initially left for maternity leave until returning a few weeks later to the UK to once again call games on-site.

The co-commentary team of Le Saux and Dixon continues to grow in strength and stature. Both are opinionated and give cutting edge analysis that isn’t often found on international feeds of Premier League games, or quite frankly on BT Sport or Sky Sports UK-based coverage. Dixon, in particular, has become far from shy in expressing very strong views on players, coaches and tactics.

The fact that Le Saux has never been given anything resembling a substantial role in the UK media speaks to NBC’s willingness to find and cultivate UK-based talent.

Rebecca Lowe

Before leaving in late March for maternity leave, Lowe had a strong season as lead presenter for NBC’s coverage. Lowe was especially strong facilitating studio discussions between the pundits, provoking thoughtful discussions on-air and giving an exceptionally professional feel to the broadcasts. Some of her previous difficulties in the first two seasons of NBC’s coverage (such as when it sounded too apparent when she was reading from the teleprompter) were not apparent this campaign.

Lowe is the best soccer presenter, if not sports presenter, on American television.

Steve Bower and Neil Ashton

Bower and Ashton were used as contributors to NBC to provide analysis in Bower’s case and news in Ashton’s. Bower has served as a gap filler for three years for NBC while his career at the BBC continues to evolve. He served admirably as a replacement for Lowe while she was on maternity leave.

Ashton’s role at NBC continues to be a strong point employing a respect UK-based writer whose knowledge of internal Premier League matters is probably superior to any US-based writer they can find. A perfect example of this was his pivotal role at Old Trafford on Sunday as he updated viewers on what was happening during and after the bomb scare. Having Ashton in England as a trusted news source is a huge plus for NBC Sports.

Studio Analysts

NBC has kept the same team of rotating studio pundits for three seasons now. For many, this means the analysis has become predictable or even stale. I’d argue that while Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe say some pre-programmed things, sometimes, both continue to be animated and offer cutting-edge opinions. Mustoe has also become less guarded and more opinionated, which adds more insight to the analysis.

As for Kyle Martino, the lone American who is part of NBC’s on-air team, his analysis is as good as any studio pundit who covers the league on the planet that I have seen. Perhaps it is because Martino has to be that good to win over skeptics because of his accent, but his work is unparalleled. He rarely makes a flippant remark and his analysis is generally well-thought out.

Is over-exposure a problem for NBC’s studio team?

Mustoe and Earle’s analysis may seem predictable unlike Martino’s, yet it’s still good. The chemistry on the team continues to be top-notch as it does on The Two Robbies Radio Show. Perhaps burnout rather than overexposure is a concern for the studio team since the nine month Premier League season affords little in terms of breaks.

NBC on the road

For the second successive season, NBC Sports took its show on the road and produced hours of excellent content as the United States-based studio team mixed well with the UK-based commentary teams. The timing of the trip was outstanding as it coincided with a period of ten straight days with Premier League matches.

Premier League Download

NBC took its combination Premier League magazine/documentary show to a new level this season with more regular original showings. The Crystal Palace Behind the Badge documentary was particularly superb.

Premier League Download is one of the features that enhances the coverage NBC provides in and around the matches themselves and continues the growth of interest in stories around the league. This sort of auxiliary programming and narrative building is partly why NBC Sports has been so successful in winning new fans in the United States over to the Premier League.

Match of the Day

Hosted by Lowe and featuring the usual array of studio pundits, Match of the Day proved indispensable to those of us who depend on seeing extended highlights to properly analyze each match. The program’s timing is inconsistent, which is unfortunate but that owes itself to NBCSN’s other programming obligations.

Summary

NBC Sports continues to make great strides in year three of its Premier League coverage, providing American fans with the highest-level programming for club soccer ever seen on US television. With NBC entering a new six-year package and able to make a long-term commitment to devote resources to the coverage of the league, next year should be even better.

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