NBC’s 20th Century Olympics Coverage In A 21st Century World

NBC's Olympic coverage doesn't necessarily recognize the realities of social networking and the 24 hour news cycle.

In the age of the Internet, social media, and online streaming video, it is becoming painfully obvious that the Olympic broadcasting model that was perfected by ABC Sports and taken over by NBC in recent years is on the verge of fading away:

NEW YORK — In the age of social media, NBC now has millions of television critics who make their opinions known about every aspect of Olympics coverage instantly.

They’ve even set up their own hashtag on Twitter: (hash)nbcfail. The online complaints focused Saturday on NBC’s decision to air the marquee swimming event won by American Ryan Lochte on tape delay in prime time, and Friday on the network not streaming the opening ceremony online. Sunday’s critics started early: people wondering why the U.S. men’s basketball team’s opening game aired on a cable network while women’s cycling was shown on NBC.

The conversation is so active that NBC’s executive producer of the games, Jim Bell, took to Twitter to answer critics and even change the way NBC is doing something in response.

“(hash)nbcfail is filled with a lot of crying and snark and humor, but NBC can actually learn something from it,” said Jeff Jarvis, a media critic who writes the Buzzmachine.com blog.

Complaints about tape delayed coverage are an evergreen with Olympics held on foreign soil. But the London Games are the first with Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites in full flower, in a mobile phone era where people carry computers that instantly deliver news in their pockets. It has amplified the impatience of viewers who want to see events on their large-screen TVs instantly and haven’t been mollified by NBC’s decision to stream the events live online.

James Poniewozik, Time magazine TV critic, tweeted that “NBC tape delay coverage is like the airlines: its interest is in giving you the least satisfactory service you will still come back for.”

That drew a quick response from NBC’s Bell: “You do know that all sports events are being streamed live right?”

“I do, indeed!” replied Poniewozik. “Have enjoyed it. Apparently a lot of folks still prefer watching it on TV.”

NBC says it saves big events for prime-time airing because that is when most viewers are available to watch them and where the network makes the bulk of its advertising revenue. Since prime time on the U.S. East Coast coincides with 1 a.m. London time, there are no events to air live then. NBC representatives noted that there were 39 hours of live events Sunday on NBC and its affiliated networks.

Jonathan Wald, who produces Piers Morgan’s CNN talk show and used to work at NBC, tweeted that “the medal for most Olympic whining goes to everyone who complains about what happens every four years. Tape delay.”

One of those complainers, in fact, was Morgan: He tweeted his disdain Friday for NBC’s decision not to make the opening ceremony available live.

As it turns out, NBC’ is likely to justify it’s tape-delayed broadcast of Friday’s Opening Ceremonies by pointing to the fact that the broadcast was watched by an estimated 40 million viewers, a Nielsen record for such events. Nonetheless, as James Joyner pointed out in his post on Friday evening, there was no small degree of absurdity in the manner in which NBC’s tape delayed broadcast was treated even by other news agencies as if it was “Breaking News.” Indeed, as I was wrapping up work on Friday afternoon here on the East Coast, CNN was showing still shots of the Opening Ceremonies that were going on at that very moment and hinting at “surprises.” Presumably, their unwillingness to show or discuss anything more was due to the exclusivity rights that NBC had to Olympic broadcasts in the United States, and the all encompassing “rules” imposed by the International Olympic Committee. The absurd part of it all was that anyone who really wanted to watch the Opening Ceremonies live on Friday afternoon could have done so by accessing any number of completely legal online video streams, so the attempts by NBC to create some air of mystery about the event was really quite absurd.

NBC is live-streaming every event on its website, but Americans can only access that stream if they are a cable television subscriber, thus leaving the increasing number of people who are leaving television behind without any options. That probably doesn’t account for many people now, but in four or either years its likely to be a very different story, and NBC and the IOC are going to have to find a way to reach that audience.

With the Opening Ceremonies over, NBC is now required to maintain the two week mirage that much of their high-profile coverage, especially of events that involve American athletes, is really actually in doubt. It’s a problem that any network that covers the Olympics has to face, of course, and the five hour delay between New York and London is not nearly as problematic for programming purposes as the twelve hour delay between New York and Beijing in 2008 or the fourteen hour delay between Sydney and New York in 2004. Nonetheless, I have already woken up this morning to the news station my alarm clock is tuned into with a sports report that starts out with “Spoiler Alert.” And even with the events taking place in London, that still means that most of the important events will occur outside of American prime time television hours. In an era where there were just three television networks and no Internet, that was probably a viable way to broadcast a sports event, I’m not so sure it works in an era of instant communication.

FILED UNDER: Entertainment, Popular Culture, Sports
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.

Comments

  1. It’s a problem that any network that covers the Olympics has to face, of course, and the five hour delay between New York and London is not nearly as problematic for programming purposes as the twelve hour delay between New York and Beijing in 2008 or the fourteen hour delay between Sydney and New York in 2004.

    It’s also why the oft made suggestion to build a permanent hosting site for the olympics won’t work. Under the current system, people get the games in their timezone at least some of the time.

  2. SKI says:

    Actually, in 4 years, it won’t be a big problem as the Olympics are in Rio. Eight years from now however…

  3. al-Ameda says:

    With the Opening Ceremonies over, NBC is now required to maintain the two week mirage that much of their high-profile coverage, especially of events that involve American athletes, is really actually in doubt.

    I find out what has happened despite any of the pretend-you-don’t-know-the-results stuff, I watch the events I have an interest in, and catch some other olympic stuff on highlights. I am not very interested in the human interest stuff that they run out there constantly either (everyone overcame great odds to do everything … please …)

  4. stonetools says:

    Whatever NBC does, its going to be heavily criticized. I say just enjoy the spectacle. I knew the result of the 4 X 100 relay before I saw the race on TV, but still I enjoyed it.

  5. @SKI:

    Fair point. Rio is an ideal site for U.S. prime time programming.. As for 2020, the candidate cities are apparently Istanbul, Tokyo, Madrid, Baku (Azerbaijan), and Doha (Qatar), Not exactly going to make life easy for an American TV programmer.

  6. jan says:

    And what was so dastardly, again, that Romney said about unforseen events happening at Olympics games, when asked his opinion about “being ready?”

    Oh yeah, he was speaking from experience……

  7. PJ says:

    @jan:
    Romney is an empty seat?

  8. @jan:

    There is nothing unforeseen about this whatsoever. It is a collision between media forms and consumer expectations. People are going to be frustrated when they can’t stream the events they want to see.

    I can’t even set my DVR for events I want to see. The Olympics show up in the schedule as big block with poor labeling of what is in them.

    FWIW, I think that this NBC #Fail post at O’Reilly was one of the best and earliest in the #nbcfail meme.

  9. Steve Z says:

    I, for one, love it. I don’t have the time or inclination to view all of the streaming events live and I prefer having a packaged presentation of “highlights’ when I get home (as do apparently many other Americans judging by the ratings). Indeed, I will record the primetime coverage, so I can fast forward through the things I am not interested in. I think the people who are complaing the most are a vocal minority of people who making their living either covering sports or spending most of their day on the internet. For those people, of course they are going to find out the results of events in real time. But for most people, if they want to avoid the results, most of the time they can.

    As a huge college football fan, I records several games every Saturday in the fall and then sit down in the late afternoon and begin watching them (in order – and sometimes with a piece of paper taped to the bottom of the screen to avoid seeing the score ticker) by skipping from snap to snap in rather rapid succession. I get to see every play “live” but watching each game only takes an hour or less (if it is a blowout). It is a hassle and I sometimes am required to answer the phone by saying “Don’t say anything about football” or avoid text message or e-mails for a while, but it’s Saturday, most things can wait a few hours. And occasionally I find out the score in advance. But in balance, it is well worth it. I like to watch every play for myself instead of seeing the 2 minute highlight on sportscenter, and prefer not to know the outcome, but I have kids’ sporting events and yardwork, and other things that mandate that I cannot sit down at 9am on saturday until 10pm. (I am on the west coast).

    I see the olympics the same way. Since I am not in the business of reporting on sports, and I am not required to constantly be on the internet, I am generally able to avoid the sporting news of the day and can enjoy the packaged version at home at night which includes more than just 2 minute highlights, but does presents the more interesting or important events of the day.

    I think this is a much bigger deal for a very small class of people who just so happen to have a louder voice than the majority who are happy with prime time coverage. Even next time when the Olympics are in a similar time zone, I am pretty sure I will not be taking two weeks off work so I can watch the badminton quarterfinals or Mile 1 of a 100 mile road race live as part of my 12 hour per day marathon olympic viewing. I will be content to come home in the evening and catch the highlights and human interest pieces. And if there is really something I want to watch live, like a basketball game, I will look for it and watch it streaming or on a sister network. Just like I can today.

  10. Me Me Me says:

    I want the “no heartwarming stories of triumph over adversity” channel. AKA the BBC.

  11. PJ says:

    @PJ:

    Romney is an empty seat?

    FAIL.
    It’s rather obvious that Romney is an empty suite, he would never sit among regular people…

  12. jan says:

    @john personna:

    I personally think all the back and forth comments regarding the Olympics have been on the petty side. Just as too much was made of Romney’s cautious, analytic remark, which was turned into an instant political brouhaha, so has too much been made of snafus plaguing the smooth functioning of the Olympics, such as published in this piece:Lost keys, mystery intruder, wrong flag, London Olympic blunders and gaffes are piling up

    It’s fortunate that the British have knack for laughing at their mistakes. That talent for self-deprecation helps explain the popularity of London Mayor Boris Johnson _ a brainy but gaffe-prone politician once forced to apologized to the entire city of Liverpool after accusing its residents of “wallowing” in victimhood.

    Yes that Borris Johnson, the same guy who chided Romney for his comments on the Oympics.

    It’s all politics versus substance……

  13. @jan:

    I really don’t know why you think #nbcfail is about “the Olympics.” None of the NBC decisions (fails) were made by the Olympic committee. Not to my knowledge.

    It really looks like you are trying to shoe-horn #nbcfail into @olympicsfail to protect your bud

    BTW, Borris Johnson is a member of the Conservative party and an ideal model for future GOP candidates for President of the United States.

    (Hmm. In fact he might be a British Chris Christie)

  14. @jan:

    Oh, #nbcfail is of course about private sector decisions that (some fraction of) their customers hate.

    We could possibly fault the Olympic Committee for selling rights as a block to a single US broadcaster. Hell, we could fault them for not running a simpler, cheaper, games and just putting coverage in the public domain.

    But that would be a complaint about the whole arc of the Olympics(TM), and not something that is just London or just 2012.

  15. al-Ameda says:

    @jan:

    I personally think all the back and forth comments regarding the Olympics have been on the petty side. Just as too much was made of Romney’s cautious, analytic remark, which was turned into an instant political brouhaha, so has too much been made of snafus plaguing the smooth functioning of the Olympics

    So, this – criticism of NBC over delayed event coverage – is deserved and is a kind of retribution for the recent coverage of Romney in London too?

    Well, okay then!

  16. No, NBC can show the events live then show the highlights in prime time. That´s what being done all over the world. The United States is the biggest market for the Olympics. It´s bizarre that I have access to a better coverage of the games here in Brazil than people in the US.

  17. Just Me says:

    My preference would be to see it all live as it happens, and have a highlight in the evenings when the zone differences are like this.

    I also wish they would just do away with pretending as if it is live or trying to keep all spoilers super secret.

    One thing I do like this year is that during the day on the various channels I am able to watch a whole game of some of the sports I am interested in when highlights don’t do them justice.

  18. jan says:
  19. anjin-san says:

    And what was so dastardly, again, that Romney said about unforseen events happening at Olympics games

    Since you brought Romney into the discussion, let’s reflect for a moment on just how completely Michelle Obama schooled him in England. Not that he appears to be teachable…