NBC Olympic Coverage: Congressional Action Needed?
Senator Herb Kohl is pressuring NBC to open up online access to its Olympic coverage.
A Democratic senator criticized NBC on Friday for its handling of online access to the Vancouver Olympics, calling it unfair and restrictive.
Sen. Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel, wrote NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker to complain about an NBC policy that he said appears to restrict some online access to people who subscribe to a pay TV service or have a provider that is partnered with NBC. Kohl said the policy unfairly prevents others from seeing Olympic events.
Kohl said he doesn’t understand why NBC doesn’t offer viewers the opportunity to pay directly for online access to all Olympic coverage. “I fear that that this practice of locking up certain content only for pay-TV subscribers may be a preview of what is to come with respect to TV programming shown on the Internet, particularly in the context of the proposed Comcast/NBC Universal merger,” said Kohl.
Kohl wrote: “It is our view that video over the Internet has the potential to become a significant competitive alternative to traditional pay TV subscriptions and it appears policies such as the one described in this letter may have the effect of limiting the prospects of such competition.”
Well . . . yes. So what?
I’m all for Congress overseeing interstate commerce and protecting against unfair business practices. Even Adam Smith understood that monopoly is antithetical to free trade. But I’m at a loss to understand what Kohl is protecting me from in this case.
The Olympics are not a public good. There’s no right whatsoever to see them unless you’ve paid for a ticket.
NBC has paid an enormous sum to the International Olympic Committee, which owns the Games, for exclusive US rights to broadcast them. It’s therefore entirely up to NBC how it wants to distribute coverage. It’s perfectly reasonable for them to conclude that distributing video online would dilute the audience for their Prime Time television broadcasts — the principle mechanism for recouping their investment.
As it happens, I hate, hate, hate NBC’s Olympic broadcasts. So much so that I’ve given up watching almost entirely. But that’s because I’m a sports fan and NBC long ago decided that the best way to package the Games is as a soap opera. Rather than focus on live coverage of, say, the US-Canada hockey game — eminently possible when the Games are in North America, as they are this year — they prefer human interest stories about skaters overcoming personal tragedies or the weirdness of being Johnny Weir. Alas, NBC packages the Games that way because it’s the most effective way to draw in casual fans — especially female ones — and maximize their revenues. Which, again, is their only responsibility.
Nor, for that matter, am I a fan of exclusivity deals. It’s annoying, for example, that the only way for me to watch Dallas Cowboys games that don’t happen to be on my local FOX affiliate is to subscribe to NFL Sunday Ticket, which in turn requires me to be a DirecTV customer. But, again, the NFL doesn’t owe me anything. I’m free to choose to take what they give me for free or to be held hostage to a single television provider; I’ve opted for the latter.