NBC’s Evolving Geographic Imagination: Revisiting Earlier Research with the 2016 Summer Olympics

Four years ago during the 2012 Summer Olympics, I worked with Emily Fekete to examine the Opening Ceremony’s “Parade of Nations.”  Because of the time difference between NBC’s audiences in the United States and the Games’ host city of London, the network “tape-delayed” the ceremony to show it during primetime viewing hours in the U.S., during which time the producers of the telecast significantly edited the event.  The result of these edits were the significant minimizing or near-exclusion of a number of delegations for the purpose of brevity and/or preservation of airtime for paid advertisements.

In both the blog I wrote, and the paper co-authored with Emily, we argued that regardless of NBC’s intentions with the editing, the altered presentation of the Parade of Nations was ultimately a narrative of geographic imagination.  For many Americans, whose geographic illiteracy is well-known, the Parade of Nations represents the only knowledge some will have of most of these places.  And, because of the inherently quantitative data produced in terms of recorded screentime for each delegation, this specific geographic imagination lent itself to mapping — in which I used a simple grayscale choropleth technique to specifically suggest that certain countries had “faded” into the ether.

This is what the map looked like in the final publication:


Fast-forwarding four years, the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janiero provided an ideal opportunity to re-examine NBC’s geographic imagination as presented through through its telecast of that Olympiad’s edition of the “Parade of Nations.”  Interestingly, and perhaps surprisingly, four years’ time made a significant difference in time spent during the telecast on the delegations.  Though we don’t think this is the case, it’s almost as if NBC paid attention to our critiques in some ways.

Some Reframing for 2016

As has become something of a quadrennial Olympic tradition, the NBC broadcast of the 2016 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony was marked by criticism by viewers.  Such issues included objection to the tape delay strategy itself, the too-frequent eight commercial breaks in the broadcast’s first 65 minutes, the commentators’ various semi-colonialist and blatantly sexist remarks about athletes and delegations, and more.

Despite Rio’s location being only one hour ahead of the eastern time zone in the U.S., NBC announced its decision to broadcast the ceremony on tape-delay nearly a month before the ceremony.  In explaining the decision, NBC Sports Group chairman Mark Lazarus told the Philadelphia Enquirer (emphasis mine):

“We are not going to stream the Opening Ceremonies live. Those will be curated and will air one hour after they occur, as will take place with us on NBC broadcast network as well…”

Lazarus further adds that the time-delay:

“allows us to curate it with the narrative and storytelling of our announcers to explain what’s going on.”

These statements alone represent a profound change for NBC, which largely let criticism from the 2012 ceremony’s tape-delay and awkward editing go unanswered.  By mentioning that the time-delay allows NBC to act as a “curat[or]” of the ceremony, Lazarus is tacitly admitting NBC’s agency as a presenter of the event, and its ability to alter and adjust the narrative it broadcasts.

Even more telling was the following exchange between Enquirer writer Jonathan Tannenwald and Lazarus:

“The question, I would say, is: If we were to air it live, and we were going to put commercials in the Games – because we are a public company and have duties to our shareholders – which parts would they like us to cut out?”

[I responded that the public would, for better or worse, probably suggest cutting out some countries they didn’t know anything about.]

“Well, that’s not fair to those countries, and those people have relatives or people here…..”

Though this also represents a significant departure from the markedly unfair coverage in 2012, this is not to say that NBC’s changes were entirely with fairness and fair play in mind.  In addition to this role as a “curat[or]” of the event’s broadcast, several reports suggested that NBC spent the weeks before the ceremony petitioning the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for specific changes to the Opening Ceremony — specifically, moving the entrance of the U.S. delegation to later in the Parade of Nations.  This concern came from the fact that the order of nations is determined alphabetically, in terms of the host nation’s predominant language.

Because host Brazil speaks Portuguese, the normal late slot held by the “United States of America” became “Estados Unidos,” much earlier alphabetically.  NBC reportedly went as far to recommend that the ceremony’s primary language be changed from Portuguese to English to accommodate this change.

The IOC’s ultimate rejection of this bizarre request meant that the Estados Unidos delegation walked into the arena as the 70th delegation out of 207, just behind the Federated States of Micronesia (“Estados Federados da Micronésia”) and just ahead of Estonia.

Lazarus’s narrative of fairness among delegations was echoed in the announcers’ commentary during the ceremony broadcast.  During the Parade of Nations as Micronesia marched into the arena, commentator Matt Lauer remarked:

“You know, I guess we could say we would just overlook the Federated States of Micronesia. We are not going to do that. We are going to give them their moment in this stadium, even though we know that right behind them comes the moment most people back home have been waiting for, the entrance of Team USA.”

Though this was (ironically) the entirety of the commentary provided by the announcers for the Micronesian team, the commitment to fairness in terms of allowing teams “their moment” is notable.

Is this the same NBC that broadcast the Opening Ceremony in 2012, where countless delegations saw their Parade of Nations screentime slashed by NBC constant service of its “duties to [its] shareholders”?  Is this the same NBC that produced the map above?

The New Map

First, and perhaps most simply, a new map was needed.  To create this map, I followed the exact same procedure as I had during the 2012 broadcast, recording the number of seconds each delegation appeared on-screen.  Using the same shapefile, projection and exact grayscale choropleth color ramp, I produced this follow-up to the earlier map.

Click for a larger version: 


If you’re interested in seeing the data for both 2012 and 2016, you can check out the spreadsheet I’ve posted on Google Drive, just give us credit if you use it for anything.

[Note: Of course, like 2012, I could not figure out any clever way to map the Independent Olympic Athletes (on-screen for 38 seconds in 2012, 26 in 2016) nor the well-received and strongly supported Refugee Olympic Teams (debuting, unfortunately, in 2016 with a respectable 57 seconds on-screen).  The omission of these athletes from the map is only practical, not political or otherwise intentional.]

Examining The Differences

The argument in our original paper was that NBC, by broadcasting the ceremony and editing the delegations’ screentimes to fit its purposes, had wielded considerable power over Americans’ worldview.  Indeed, it seemed that the most overlooked delegations tended to come from less affluent or less politically powerful countries.

As I recorded the screentimes for delegations in the 2016 edition, I noticed several changes:

  1. No delegation received less than 10 seconds of screentime, which is a dramatic change from the many which were cut shorter than seven seconds by commercial breaks in 2012.
  2. The times for these delegations, excepting slightly longer times for larger contingents to enter the arenas (an excusable nod to the logistics of people marching in parades), were largely more equal among the countries.
  3. Affluence and political importance had limited influence, though was not completely unnoticed in the distribution of screentime.
  4. Screentimes for teams marching after the USA’s entrance seemed notably shorter than those who marched before it.

Indeed, these changes also seemed apparent in the maps.  Below, I offer an animated map that transitions between the 2012 and 2016 maps.  In each, the choropleth color ramp is identical, as is its classification.  However, just because I’m a cartographer whose preferences have indeed changed in four years’ time, these maps are presented in the Eckert IV projection instead of Winkel-Trippel.


[I wonder if this silly map violates the IOC’s inane GIF ban…]

The marked change toward a more equitable distribution of screentime is also apparent when the data from 2012 and 2016 are placed into histograms (click to enlarge):


Certainly, the histogram and descriptive statistics both suggest a more egalitarian distribution of screentime to the various delegations during the parade.

Such evening of the screentimes also seems somewhat independent of the sizes of these delegations, which is important.  Generally, wealthier and more developed countries have larger participation in Olympic games than their poorer and less developed counterparts; a trend that continued to at least some extent in 2016 (click to enlarge):



The Portuguese Conspiracy

[No, not really…]

Beyond the shift to a more equitable division of screentime amongst competing countries, the reports of NBC’s attempts to renegotiate (coerce?) a different order for the entrance of delegations had me curious.  The motivation behind NBC’s reported request made sense; a later entrance by Team USA meant more viewers for longer, which means more potential advertising revenue.

But, given that the IOC refused NBC’s request, and given the emphasis that NBC placed on the need for tape-delay to allow for a “curated” broadcast, I wondered if that curation also included shifting the entrance of the USA delegation later in the broadcast.

The data suggests that the delegations to enter after the United States did indeed see less screentime on average than the earlier marchers.  Once again, click to enlarge:



Final Thoughts

Like with our earlier paper, I cannot begin to suggest the true motives behind these notable changes brought by NBC’s evolving geographic imagination as presented by the Parade of Nations.  Indeed, at a glance, it appears that NBC attempted to address many of the critiques that Emily and I raised in our paper by making adjustments to the 2016 edition; of course, that is not to suggest any causal relationship between the two!

However, intent is not the crucial ingredient here.  NBC’s role as a “curat[or]” has consequences; some 27 million viewers watched the ceremony on NBC, and countless millions others streamed or time-shifted the event.  Though this is considered the lowest viewership of the ceremony since 1992, the ceremony has at least some impact among its American viewership in terms of geographic literacy and worldview.  Because of the significant power, as the ceremony’s broadcaster, that NBC can exercise, its changing and evolving geographic narrative demands further examination.

Author: Andrew Shears

Andrew Shears is an Assistant Professor of Geography at Mansfield University in Mansfield, Pennsylvania. His research interests lie at an intersection of the human-environmental nexus, and includes branches of mapping, technological, memorialization and urban geographies. He lives in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania with his wife Amy, a professional photographer.