Now Narrating the Olympics: A.I.-Al Michaels


The Olympics have ancient beginnings. Now, they will also have a dose of the latest technology.

This year, highlights from the Summer Olympics will be brought to you by artificial intelligence — and more specifically, the A.I.-generated narration of Al Michaels.

Executives at NBCUniversal and the streaming service Peacock said on Wednesday that a customized, daily highlight reel for the Olympics would be available to streaming subscribers. The reel will feature the voice of Mr. Michaels, the 79-year-old American broadcaster, who first covered the Olympics decades ago.

Mr. Michaels, however, will not be holing up in a broadcast booth each night to briefly summarize the dozens of Olympic events that took place. Instead, Peacock’s program has been trained from Mr. Michaels’s NBC clips — he joined the network in 2006 and was its longtime “Sunday Night Football” announcer — to formulate coherent, realistic-sounding sentences, which “will provide his signature expertise and elocution,” the company said.

Mr. Michaels granted approval for the use of his voice.

“When I was approached about this, I was skeptical but obviously curious,” Mr. Michaels said in a statement issued by the company. “Then I saw a demonstration detailing what they had in mind. I said, ‘I’m in.’”

It does raise a key question, one that recalls Mr. Michaels’s most famous Olympic call: Do NBCUniversal executives believe in miracles?

NBC has been exclusively broadcasting the Olympics in the United States since 1996, and the network frequently finds itself subject to intense public scrutiny for its coverage of the Games.

Handing the keys to A.I. adds a new risk to the mix: A.I.-generated Al Michaels is almost sure to draw interest given its novelty. And there has been no shortage of tales of embarrassing errors, face-plants and slightly alarming hallucinations as A.I. has burst into widespread use over the past 18 months.

Subscribers who want the daily Peacock highlight reel will be able choose the Olympic events that interest them most, and the types of highlights they want to see, such as viral clips, gold medalists or elimination events.

From there, Peacock’s A.I. machines will get to work each evening cranking out the most notable moments and putting them together in a tidy customized package. Mr. Michaels’s recreated voice will be piped over the reels. (Humans will make quality control checks on the A.I. highlight reels.)

NBCUniversal officials said they were anticipating seven million different variations of customized highlights throughout the games. The highlights will show up in the Peacock app for users who sign up for it.

Brian Roberts, the chairman of Comcast, NBCUniversal’s parent, presented the new Al Michaels clip at an event to introduce A.I.-Al (officially called “Your Daily Olympic Recap on Peacock”).

The germ of the idea, Mr. Roberts said, was born from a meeting months ago when Comcast and NBCUniversal executives said: “What could we do with A.I.? How can we leverage A.I. purely for fun and for good?”

After Mr. Roberts showed a demonstration, he added, “we pushed ourselves to invent and innovate and to develop something better again and again.”

The Olympics come at a crucial time for NBCUniversal. Peacock lost nearly $3 billion last year and lags far behind rivals like Netflix or Disney+ in terms of total subscribers. But the streaming service has had strong subscriber growth over the last year, and has been leaning on sports to help get it there. In January, Peacock showed the first streaming-only National Football League playoff game.

The Olympics, which begin on July 26, provide it an entirely different test. In addition to daytime and prime-time broadcasts on NBC and a series of cable networks, Peacock will play a prominent role in the company’s Olympic coverage, and will stream every Olympic event.

Kelly Campbell, the president of Peacock, called the new A.I. tool a “breakthrough” in an interview, and said that if it worked, it could soon populate the streaming platform in other ways — perhaps Andy Cohen A.I. recaps for Bravo shows, she said.

“This version, to me, I want to do this for every sporting event and show we have on Peacock,” she said. “This is something that truly differentiates. We are in a sea of sameness, and to have something that actually sets you apart is really cool.”



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