When longtime host Bob Costas stepped down last year, NBC had an opportunity to reimagine its Olympics coverage. Costas had been hosting the network’s primetime broadcasts from the Summer and Winter Games since 1992, informing viewers of the nightly schedule, hipping them to major storylines, rehashing events, and conducting one-on-one interviews, all with genial competence. Olympics host is an odd job, and it has only gotten odder as streaming, real-time coverage of the games has transformed the primetime show into an outdated, flag-waving clip job. By 2016, Costas had become the sportscasting equivalent of a favorite chair. He stayed around because he was comfortable, and because you no longer noticed he could stand to be tossed out.
In selecting Costas’ replacement, NBC has essentially reupholstered that old chair. The network picked 51-year-old former Monday Night Football play-by-play guy Mike Tirico, who looks like a nearsighted turtle, which can only have helped him land a job for which an avuncular mien must be a plus. While it’s heartening to see NBC hire a black man to fill the soothing, authority figure role that so often reflexively goes to white men, Tirico sees himself as an upholder of the status quo. (He also isn’t interested in racial labels.) Tirico has promised to be less political than Costas, and he’s done nothing in his first week on set to suggest he’ll rock the Olympics boat. If Costas was a shishito pepper—nine times out of 10, not spicy at all!—then Tirico is a banana pepper—maybe after a few days in vinegar he’d sort of make your mouth tingle. Tirico has ably stepped into the job of host by doing nothing memorable, all while emitting a faint whiff of being perfectly pleasant.
Whiffs can be deceiving: NBC hired Tirico despite his history of groping, propositioning, and stalking a half-dozen women in the 1990s while at ESPN, allegations made public in both 2000’s ESPN: The Uncensored History and 2011’s Those Guys Have All the Fun. After Matt Lauer was fired for “inappropriate sexual behavior” in November, NBC parried questions about Tirico’s past. “When we hired Mike in 2016,” an NBC Sports spokesman said, “we were aware of the incidents from more than 25 years ago, which had been addressed … and for which he has apologized. Mike has repeatedly assured us that this behavior is long in his past, and we have no evidence of anything to the contrary in his tenure at NBC Sports.”
Tirico may have changed his ways, but on Tuesday night NBC—a network that, in addition to Lauer, made Access Hollywood bus passenger Billy Bush a key member of its 2016 Olympics broadcast team—aired a primetime puffball interview between Tirico and Shaun White that made no mention of sexual harassment claims against the snowboarder.
The extratextual distastefulness of this interview was the only interesting thing about it. Tirico thus far has shown a knack for being a willing foil to more charismatic athletes. In his interview with White, he asked a smattering of questions the media-savvy White ably catapulted off to set up his tale of gold-medal redemption. Tirico’s contribution to figure-skater Adam Rippon’s star-making interview was offering up a buffet of banalities —What were you thinking about on the ice?—that only served to highlight the bracing energy of Rippon’s unpredictable responses.
On Tuesday night’s broadcast, Tirico and NBC’s Natalie Morales sat down together not to recap the games but to plug a #MeToo-related advertising campaign. (Morales described it, in high Newspeak, as “an advertiser movement.”) Later, as Tirico wondered if White could recapture gold, his voice rose in excitement to approximately I-just-discovered-a-Tic-Tac-in-my-pocket level.
NBC’s decision not to change its well-worn Olympics format is understandable. Ratings for the games may be down, but there is no reason to alienate older viewers who like the network’s coverage when the younger audience is never coming back. In this way, Tirico is like all the other network news professionals who’ve been tapped to replace anchors who’ll always have had a bigger job and a bigger audience than the new guys ever will. They’re inheritors of a dying flame, but, still, you know, a cozy one.