NBC’s Olympic contortions
It’s a toss-up which of this summer’s Olympics controversies will be the one most remembered. Twitter’s censorship (er, enforcement of terms of service) of an NBC critic and Empty Seat-gate are strong contenders. But for me NBC’s decision to tape-delay and edit live events after bragging that it would provide unprecedented real-time online access takes the gold.
Somehow our emotional attachment to television — and not video — remains incredibly strong. How else to explain the torrent of hate begat by NBC’s online blackout and broadcast delay of the Olympics opening ceremony in a day and age when alternatives and workarounds abound and time-shifting itself is considered a basic human right?
No, this feels like an “Occupy TV” moment: We, the 99 percent are galled that NBC won’t give us what we want when we want it, and that NBC is doing it because of a profit motive that requires it to manufacture appointment TV.
Over the weekend, Dan Levy, of sports site Bleacher Report, tweeted: “Folks, to think NBC cares about our complaints is ridiculous. They don’t care about sports fans. They care about ratings. We knew this.” NYU professor and media watchdog Jay Rosen tweeted in response: “Have you ever noticed how often people use the word ‘ratings’ as a synonym for ‘…so just shut up.’”
NBC can, more or less, do what it wants with the games as it paid $1.2 billion for them. Its goal is to make a profit despite the eye-popping licensing fee and the tens of millions more in production costs. It is about the ratings, like it or not.
But would ratings suffer if NBC unleashed all the video on the Web and aired marquee events live?
The only way to know if ratings wouldn’t suffer is if some gutsy network tried. Aha! One has! CBS has streamed March Madness for years, and still garnered healthy and even record Nielsen ratings, this year reporting its best ratings in 18 years.
So, why is NBC so afraid to go where CBS has already been? Well, the scale of March Madness and that of the Olympics are not comparable, of course. There was a symbiosis between CBS and the NCAA, scheduling an American event for an American audience, while for an international event, U.S. preferences don’t matter. The Olympics present a time-zone problem that the NCAA championship didn’t have – prime time in London is the evening commute in the Eastern time zone, and midafternoon in the Western.
But none of these are NBC’s problems, per se. If the geek uproar is to be believed, there is a hunger for seeing the Olympics as the reality show it is, no matter when the events we want to see are occurring. It’s our call, not yours, the argument goes, and NBC is alienating the audience by imposing what amount to blackouts.
If it were a matter of one thing or another, that might excuse NBC. But there is a strong argument NBC can have its cake and eat it too. The scant evidence supports the mob: The network was eviscerated for its handling of the opening ceremonies, which it delayed and packaged (and edited) for prime-time viewing in the U.S. time zones. And it scored record ratings not only for Friday’s launch but also throughout the weekend, averaging 35.8 million viewers in prime time, despite streaming all events (but not the opening ceremony) online at NBCOlympics.com.
This tells me that NBC is getting it wrong, but not for the reason it likely thinks. As March Madness taught us, distributing the content on more or less equal footing on and offline (TV) actually boosts TV viewership.
This is especially true in a time-shifted universe: If we hear of a fantastic outcome at noon, we’ll be dying to see it at 8 p.m. And the people who saw it at noon on their computers, smartphones and tablets will be your best salespeople. Imagine the word pictures (and real pictures) that would have circulated Friday afternoon, all agreeing “you have to see this on a big screen,” if NBC had allowed full access to the proceedings, with sharing encouraged. It’s hard to imagine that TV viewership of the spectacle that is always the Olympics opening ceremony would have suffered because it was streamed earlier to a 4-inch phone screen.
It is increasingly difficult to keep the cat in the bag anyway, for reasons that NBC can’t control. News sites, including NBCNews.com, have put Olympics results on their front pages, and of course anyone can report using social media. Keeping track of what secrets you’ve told and which you haven’t yet is also hard: NBC even promoted an interview with Gold medalist swimmer Missy Franklin before it had aired the event.
The contortions are more involved than a gymnast’s, and entirely unnecessary. While there is surely an audience for online streaming – a particularly solo pursuit – there is a massive audience (only partly made up of geeks and journalists) that wants the group hug that is TV. This crowd doesn’t want to fiddle with finicky apps or sit alone with a laptop – nor even has the means to view things online in the middle of the afternoon. Some will catch raw stuff now and still want to see it in all its produced glory later.
The NBCs of the world don’t realize the enormous value most of us still place on watching TV from the couch, in full lean-back mode. This desire is so great that the Internet is not yet broadcasting’s competitor.
We want choices, but the spectacle must be televised. TV still owns the living room, aided and abetted by game systems and the second screen, which means we don’t have to choose between media platforms.
This is The Game of Couches. And if networks were bold enough, they would claim it and the future as well.
PHOTO: A woman photographs the Olympic rings positioned on Tower Bridge for the 2012 London Olympic Games, July 23, 2012. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor