NBC Olympic Coverage: Congressional Action Needed?

NBC Olympics Vancouver 2010Senator 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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Steve Plunk says:

    Does the US Olympic committee or IOC receive any government money? If so there might be an argument for greater access to the games.

    Personally I think the Olympics suck so whatever.

  2. just me says:

    Personally, if NBC bought the rights, I figure they can organize their internet coverage however they want. Although I do wonder why they don’t either charge for an online Olympic package for those who don’t have cable or allow access to video for events that have already happened-maybe provide access the day after the event or something.

    I am with you on just wanting to watch the athletes compete and not really caring about the talking head, sob story, “let’s go meet the athlete” type stuff. I wonder if there is some kind of poll out there that says most people prefer the focus on the athlete stuff, and I am just the exception to the preference.

    That is one reason I am glad most of the hockey has been shown on MSNBC or USA. The coverage of the hockey there is more like an actual game-and if there is any sob story to be told it is confined to quick comments or sometimes the breaks between periods.

    I also think the network coverage especially is commercial heavy and sometimes gets overly American focused. Oh and I would be annoyed at the tape delays if I lived on the west coast. I really don’t see any reason to not show much of the live action live, and then do a recap of the days action that had already past.

  3. kth says:

    Senatorial grandstanding on sports-related issues is generally a transparent ploy to get face time on ESPN and thus to gain name recognition with their mostly-apolitical viewers. Anytime a senator wastes a jot of his/her power and influence on performance-enhancing drugs, the BCS system, or this or that blackout rule, our republic shuffles a couple more steps towards senility.

  4. Herb says:

    Nor, for that matter, am I a fan of exclusivity deals.

    I’m with you on this one. Exclusivity deals are anti-competitive, and by virtue of that, they’re proven money-makers…for whoever has the exclusive deal.

    Everyone else, no soup for you!

  5. Nicole says:

    Although I do wonder why they don’t either charge for an online Olympic package for those who don’t have cable or allow access to video for events that have already happened-maybe provide access the day after the event or something.

    My understanding is that they do post the events after the fact, but people are complaining about the time delay (till after NBC gets around to broadcasting it). I don’t see why they can’t develop some sort of “on-demand” model for online users, either fee based or commercial based. Especially since NBC doesn’t show everything. Look at the model that CBS uses for March Madness — they have “March Madness On Demand,” where you can sign up (for free) to view any of the games over the internet, with commercial interruption. The only restriction is that if the game is being broadcast by your local affiliate, you can’t watch it online till after the broadcast. But you can also go back and watch previous games. I realize the Olympics is different than March Madness, but surely there would be some way to make it work in a way that better caters to those who want to watch entire events (rather than the few races that NBC chooses to show) or those who rely on the internet for television viewing (increasingly common among under 30s).

  6. Raoul says:

    Originally, I was going to agree with the post, and yes, the coverage sucks. Why is the government meddling in private affairs? However, the competitive restriction is a valid point of criticism and perhaps there is a federal interest here and not only because it is the Olympics (a government sanctioned enterprise granted unique powers) but because of airwaves and internet falls within jurisdiction of The United States. I would not equal this with the BCS which while it sucks, I am unsure of government involvement. And let’s not even start about creating a federal boxing commission as McCain wants to do.

  7. Gerry W. says:

    I used to have Canadian TV and they will broadcast live as it happens. So what you see a lot of times in prime time all ready happened in the afternoon. Also they won’t show the first two groups of skaters, maybe not worth it, but we know that they cut some things out. Whatever NBC does or anything else is the price of capitalism. Some countries have 100% broadband and we are still in the dark ages-so to speak.

  8. John Burgess says:

    I wouldn’t mind seeing the IOC take up a model similar to MLB.com’s. You can, for a flat fee, sign up to watch all out-of-market games on your PC (or stream it to your TV, if that’s how you swing). This would cut out all broadcasters, of course, but I think the money would be there.

    For a lesser sum, you can sign up for radio coverage (either from a home or away station) for all games. I use that while watching BoSox games out of my Tampa TV broadcasts. The Tampa broadcasters are the lamest of the lame, even discounting for home team prejudice. Even local radio coverage beats it.

  9. 11B40 says:


    I think that Senator Kohl’s initiative is a natural outgrowth of the current and growing disrespect for contract law. Corporate CEOs have shown themselves quite willing to abase themselves and sacrifice their organizations entitlements to the real or perceived powers of politicians and bureaucrats. It still somewhat amazes me what, what were formerly called Titans of Industry, put up with in terms of treatment at Congressional hearings. And as B.F. Skinner, the noted psychologist told/warned us, “Rewarded behavior tends to be repeated.”

  10. Brett says:

    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.

    I find it kind of amusing at times. “Wow, what a good women’s downhill race, looks like it’s close! Oh, wait, I just went to the NYT.com webpage and found out that Vonn crashed and burned, and the medal rankings. Oh, well.”

  11. john personna says:

    I don’t think Congress should waste their time (heh), but I think what you’re really doing is encouraging me to just think of the Olympics as another corporate brand.

    Well, this follows on the goggle poem.

    The Olympics seem to be having some sort of old-media FAIL going on. If they weren’t a brand, and were just international amateur (remember that?) athletics, they could just Public Domain everything and be done … but they aren’t that. They are a brand.

  12. jarze says:

    Wow, by reading this story and the comments, I’m very glad that I live in Europe, namely Finland. Here we have the national television broadcasting virtually everything without any fees. Most of our competitors are shown live. The time difference sucks though.

  13. Mr. Prosser says:

    I think the MLB.com model may appear some day but I’m not sure any non-broadcast company has the upfront money to buy the rights now. NBC or any other broadcaster won’t put it on line if it ruins tape delay broadcasting even if individuals want to buy it. As an aside, I think it may work better in the Summer Games where more obscure competitions get short shrift. I would pay to see all the Judo, Tae Kwon Do and baseball. A menu option on line would be something I would look into.

  14. ATM says:

    Well, jarze you should be glad that you are living in Europe. Your national television broadcasting company likely pays very little for rights to the Olympics. The IOC has been extracting a pretty penny from US broadcasters for years, see http://www.sportsbusinessjournal.com/article/63810. Even in recent years it gets 52% versus 25% of its media revenue from the US compared to Europe, despite comparable overall economy sizes and a larger European population.