NBC’s Olympic contortions

July 31, 2012

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

8 comments

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Living in London, I really find this mind boggling. We have our English football and cricket teams go around the world. F1 Racing can me at midnight or 4pm. Its pretty simple – show the sport live. For people who have hectic schedules – like me – I work from home and watch the recorded backup. Its not so hard – in fact it gets all the sports fans to get afternoon or midnight ratings up and preserves prime time for regular TV.

Posted by John2244 | Report as abusive

NBC should never be allowed to have the olypics ever again. Some things should not be about profit.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

I agree – - forbid NBC from ever covering the Olympics. They’s done a horrid job. It seems their main focus is commercials and human interest subplots rather than real sport. NBC=Nothing But Crap. (Hope that made it through Reuters’ censors.)

Posted by explorer08 | Report as abusive

After digitalization of all TV signals,
almost each family has at least 2 NBC channels.

If NBC was to get exclusive rights,
then it should have broadcasted everything live on the second digital channel, and choose whatever they want for prime time.

But the news reports of Olympics, including Reuters and NBC and most other carriers, are all contorted in their own ways. You see all the flashing of Chinese men gymnasts falling with the Reuters title “Chinese Gymnastic Team Crumbles”, and think that the reigning champ was disqualified. And by night, you realize that they just had one world champion injured, and the last minute backup gymnast had to do a routine without having the fair opportunity to test the equipment, or ever touching the equipment before. Because only one chance is given for testing the equipment and the testing had been done by the injured player. That’s an example of extremely biased reporting by the Reuters Sports reporters.

And before you know, the team that the Reuters gave clear impression to have been kicked out of the competition, won Gold by a big margin.

They act as if we Americans cannot handle the truth, and have to be babied with slander by false insinuations, trash talk. That’s insulting as well as embarrassing.

In fact, I refuse to believe in anything Reuters sports says because it is obviously extremely extremely biased. I simply go to the Official London Olympics site if I want any Olympic news.

Shame on NBC. Shame on Reuters Sports editing and reporting.

Posted by Janeallen | Report as abusive

Another socialist idiot whining about profit.

NBC and Twitter practicing censorship, evil.

NBC lied, cheated and stole, more evil.

A contract is a contract. What does the contract with the Olympic Committee say?

Olympic Committee practicing censorship, very evil.

The facts no one wants to read.

Learn to think for yourself.

Censorship is evil.

Posted by ALLSOLUTIONS | Report as abusive

Emotionally, Abell is right.

The problem is that in every other respect it appears NBC got it right. The Olypics are rating higher than they have since the 1970s. We can debate about the fairness of the blue sky, but cannot dispute the existence. As such, what looks to be NBC’s unfairness will prove to be their most profitable decision of the year.

Posted by DwDunphy | Report as abusive

it ain’t the delays, it is the manufactured commentary and the constant sniping and carping… ugly, nasty and regrettable. I watch without sound.

Posted by Big-Bud | Report as abusive

Wow, and I always read about the evil “Faux” news. CNN and NBC have shown us who really puts out fake news. Don’t stop ragging on Fox, though. I know it gives many of your lives meaning.

Posted by johnathan58 | Report as abusive