In the seven and a half years, NBC Sports Group have televised the Premier League across their various platforms. For the most part, U.S. fans have been very satisfied with the level of coverage they have received. But a strong case can be made that NBC’s best days of covering Premier League football are behind them. With Premier League rights coming up for bid next year for either a three or six year period beginning with the 2022-23 season, the time has never been better to review where NBC’s coverage has recently fallen short of the mark.
When NBC embarked on broadcasting the Premier League in 2013, for an initial three-year period, they set an incredibly high standard for presentation and production. World Soccer Talk visited NBC Sports Group’s Stamford, CT campus in the early days of NBC’s coverage of the Premier League. What we found then, and was conveyed over-the-air was a level of seriousness in covering a club soccer competition that at the time was unprecedented on American television.
In the summer of 2015, NBC’s rights to air the Premier League were extended a further six seasons, ending with the 2021-22 campaign. At the time, fans rejoiced as the fear of access to and presentation of the league backsliding to pre-2013 levels was real. However, during the course of this current six-year contract, NBC seems to have — of late — regressed relative to the competition that airs soccer in the United States.
Let’s look at some of the key points related to NBC’s recent coverage shortfalls.
Less insightful studio punditry
The usefulness of NBC’s pre- and post-match programming was already waning last season, but the loss of Kyle Martino, the network’s most analytical Premier League studio pundit, has been glaring this season. Tim Howard, his replacement, brings a different perspective and skill set to the job – one that viewers should appreciate as a recently retired player who has either played with or for a number of current managers in the league. But Howard doesn’t quite have the ability to break down matches the way Martino did, though he has recently improved.
Additionally, NBC’s emphasis even before the loss of Martino has shifted from covering the league as a whole to blowing up any story about the “big six” clubs that claim a disproportionate percentage of American fans. NBC’s studio team will spend countless hours discussing Liverpool or Manchester United, but seemingly ignore Brighton or Fulham. In NBC’s early days of covering the league, they spent lots of studio time focusing on every aspect of the competition, but at some point shifted to a top-heavy approach.
Danny Higginbotham’s addition to the studio team in the last few weeks has been a welcome one. The former Stoke City defender has an uncanny knowledge of the league and has an immense ability to talk about clubs outside the “big six.”
Presenter Rebecca Lowe has gone from being a gold standard studio host to someone who oftentimes asks the wrong questions or even the laziest ones. This may be less on Lowe and more on the drift of the NBC presentation in general. Many of the shows Lowe hosts are sprinkled with light entertainment features, something NBC always did, but now seem to take up more programming space than ever.
We have seen a clear shift that has taken NBC’s studio emphasis from unique insight to a focus on entertainment.
Steve Bower’s regular appearances on Monday’s gave an insight not otherwise present on NBC’s Premier League programming. Prior to this, Bower had regularly hosted NBC’s studio, and served as a second lead commentator.
Gary Lineker’s departure from NBC has left the network without a regular pitchside studio for big matches as well the latest from Goalhanger films that featured several documentaries hosted or produced by Lineker about non ”big six” clubs.
Semi-regular features with Mark Clattenburg on officiating were also very useful and informative for viewers. Those are now virtually non-existent on the network.
Less original reporting
It was out of NBC’s control, but Neil Ashton’s decision to leave journalism and become a public relations professional in January 2020 left a huge void in NBC’s presentation. Rather than replace Ashton, NBC has, like in the case of Bower and Clattenburg, filled the void with more “big six” studio talk and fluffy entertainment driven features.
To have a complete studio production to wrap-around matches, you need someone who breaks the news or can speculate in an educated fashion about potential news.
The lack of original reporting or analysis of news stories is a huge miss for NBC. Furthermore, replacing Ashton’s insight with occasional commentary from NBC’s sister network Sky Sports News is arguably less useful than doing nothing.
Perhaps it is the influence of Sky, now owned by NBCUniversal parent Comcast, but NBC’s studio now seems obsessed with any scandalous story or ones involving large personalities. If a controversy erupts involving Jose Mourinho, Jurgen Klopp or Paul Pogba, viewers can expect NBC to devote much of its studio time to discussing this rather than the action on the pitch. While it has always been a part of any Premier League studio presentation to discuss controversies involving the biggest personalities in the division, NBC has very visibly increased emphasis on these topics in recent seasons.
The new CBS standard
CBS’ acquisition of the U.S. rights for UEFA club competitions in English has changed the game completely in terms of studio production and match commentary. The studio hosted by Kate Abdo and featuring the likes of Micah Richards, Roberto Martinez and Jamie Carragher has created a healthy balance of superb cutting-edge analysis with light-hearted entertainment mixed in. This is what NBC once did, but has shifted recently toward a more entertainment-focus with an unhealthy dose of sensationalism on topics like Paul Pogba and Jose Mourinho.
CBS has also brought in at various times some of the best English-language reporters to discuss their areas of speciality in continental football. This is something severely lacking in NBC’s coverage, especially after the loss of Ashton.
In addition, CBS brought to match commentary two of the definitive voices of English-language soccer broadcasts in Clive Tyldesley and Peter Drury. NBC’s over reliance on Arlo White to work multiple matches each weekend and often double as a post-match studio host or analyst needs freshening up. White remains popular and has a very Americanized commentary style. But the loss of Bower has left White with too much to do. It’s time for more commentary firepower based in the UK if NBC does plan to retain Premier League broadcast rights beyond the summer of 2022.
It is indisputable that NBC has most definitely shifted its emphasis from covering the entire league well to more entertainment and a “top six” focus.
But it can be argued that NBC is just responding to what the market wants. After all, most Americans support “big six” clubs. And consistently in our Twitter polling, NBC studio shows and personalities remain the most popular among American soccer fandom. The coverage also remains “comfortable” as Premier League fans are accustomed to the routine of watching NBC with the same studio team and commentators.
However, my view is that as CBS’ coverage penetrates deeper into the consciousness of American fans, even those big club fans will find NBC’s coverage inferior by comparison. The recent addition of Higginbotham (who also does work for CBS Sports HQ) is a step in the right direction. Let’s hope it’s the first of many.
If NBC does plan to retain the Premier League broadcast rights in the United States, an upgrade to or maybe even a complete overhaul of the presentation needs to be seriously considered to breathe new life into their broadcasters.
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