The Olympics are in full swing, at about the halfway point, and Bob Costas is in familiar place. The versatile broadcaster is back in a television studio in the role of host.
But this time it’s not for NBC’s prime-time Olympics coverage, something he anchored for a record 11 Olympiads before retiring from the job after the 2016 Summer Games. In fact, he’ll be competing against his former network’s Olympics coverage on Friday night when he makes his return to HBO with “Back on the Record with Bob Costas,” a homage to “On The Record with Bob Costas” that debuted on the network two decades ago.
The episode Friday will be the first installment of a series that will air monthly through October, then quarterly next year. While Costas didn’t have an acrimonious departure from NBC, it was extremely peculiar ending for a guy who had been the face of its sports division — arguably the entire network — for decades and had been with the company for nearly 40 years
His exit never was announced by the network, there never even was an on-air tip of the cap for his unparalleled career in which he was an integral part of NBC’s baseball, football basketball and horse racing converge. In fact, it was in early 2019 — about seven months after his last on-air appearance — when it became public that the sides had parted ways.
NBC, which is in business with the NFL, had become irritated by Costas’ numerous discussions of brain troubles football players develop later in life and the rift grew to the point that he did not work on the Super Bowl telecast in 2018, and Costas’ final assignments were Triple Crown horse race coverage later that year. Then he just faded away.
But he says starting his new HBO venture, which debuts at 9 p.m. Friday in the heart of NBC’s Olympics prime-time coverage, isn’t part of some payback plan.
“That was not the intention, that was an HBO programming” decision, he said this week. “I always wanted each premiere (episode of the program) right after an original Bill Maher show because it’s a good lead-with some overlap of sensibility.”
Costas’ program, which also will be streamed on HBO Max, actually was supposed to begin in 2020. Then it was rescheduled to start earlier this year but again was pushed back because of coronavirus protocols.
“I don’t think it’s right to start a show under those circumstances,” he said, adding that it would have seemed awkward to launch a program without face-to-face interaction. "People who already had shows, those were OK with Zoom. But not for new one.
“I didn’t feel any urgency about it. We’re arriving at the right time to do it.”
Costas, who began his career in St. Louis and lived in the area for much of his adult life, previously told the Post-Dispatch he is not bitter about the conclusion of his storied run at NBC.
“The whole thing could have gone down better.,” he has said. “Maybe a small part of the blame for that lies with me, I don’t know. … I certainly didn’t need a parade or a laurel wreath or any sort of big on-air to-do. But I would have liked to have ended on a grace note rather than just sort of disappearing. But in the big picture of 40 years, that’s just a small note. There were so many high points and so many things we collaborated on that turned out extremely well, and so much great stuff to look back on.
“I would have preferred that it ended on that grace note, not just for me but for all the people I worked for and with at NBC. The way I would have crafted that grace note, no matter what form it took, would have been as a tip of the cap in appreciation to them as well. It’s a little bit of a shame that didn’t happen. But in the big picture, it’s just a footnote.
“... I think very few people can say there isn’t some thing that they’d like to tweak or change or have a mulligan on. ... But I don’t think it’s anybody’s fault. Sometimes things get jumbled a little bit, and that’s what happened here. But it’s not that big of a deal. I think I did pretty well overall.”
Moving forward, Costas is far from retired, and his next venture is a return to a network at which he has deep roots, having conducted “On The Record with Bob Costas” from 2001-2004 and “Costas Now” from 2005-2009. He also was host of “Inside the NFL” there from 2002-07.
The new program’s approach will be familiar to his previous endeavors, mixing commentary and interviews with discussion of timely topics.
“They will be current to some extent but we don’t have to react to everything that happened that day,” he said, adding that the shows for the time being will be taped the day they debut but might eventually be done live.
He said the debut episode will address the increasing role of athletes being involved in team ownership, such as Michael Jordan, Alex Rodriguez and Magic Johnson have done. Renee Danielle Montgomery, a former WNBA player who now is a part owner of the Atlanta Dream in that league, is one of the guests booked for the program.
Also on the docket: Charles Barkley, Aly Raisman (gymnastics) and David Cone (baseball). ESPN’s Bomani Jones will be a recurring commentator on the series.
“The first show won’t go outside of sports, but others could,” Costas said.
He noted that in the past he has had diverse guests including Chris Rock. Jerry Seinfeld, Tina Fey, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Hanks, Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney, “who all had something to say about sports.”
Costas, 69, has had a lot to say in recent weeks after being confined mostly to his Southern California home last year during the pandemic from which he made occasional on-air appearances when he was asked to be a guest.
But now he is back traveling to broadcast games for MLB Network, for which he long has had ties, frequently is on CNN, for which he is a contributor, and now has his own show for which to prepare late each month through October. He currently is staying in New York, where he also has a residence and the HBO show originates.
“I’ve gone from doing very little for 15 months to meeting myself coming and going,” he said.
He’ll be going to HBO’s facility on Friday to do the program, and will be in a familiar place.
“There is a good, small core of people all on the same page regarding the objective and sensibility of the show,” he said. “All are attuned to what I have done in the past.”
That bodes well for the future of the program.