NBC’s Olympic Successes and Failures

Posted: July 31, 2012 in Television
Tags: , ,

We live in an age of instant gratification.  The sheer number of hours of Olympic coverage that NBC is providing live through its website — free of charge to anyone with a cable subscription — is upwards of 3000.  You can see every event that you want to see, live, in High Definition, from your computer or mobile device.  If you miss it, you can go back and watch it later as NBC archives all* of its events to view at your leisure.  This is undoubtedly one of the most technologically successful Olympics games ever, and the ratings are at record highs for the Comcast-owned network.  But you wouldn’t know any of that if you took to twitter and searched the messages sent to @NBCOlympics.

By far the biggest complaint is that some events — think Opening/Closing Ceremonies, US Swim finals, Beach Volleyball, Gymnastics — are not shown live on television as they happen.  The reason for this is simple: they are happening between 9am and 3 in the afternoon EDT.  This is not what one would call “prime time.”  So NBC tape-delays its coverage of the most interesting and popular events so that it can help pay for the insanely expensive enterprise (more than a billion dollars) of providing the coverage with the $1B it’s gained in advertising revenues.  Four years ago, this wasn’t as big a problem for US viewers as the 12-hour time zone difference from Beijing allowed US viewers to see events in prime time that were happening in the morning.  Before 2008, no one would have considered expecting full live coverage of every event.  Sure, there have been some glitches with the NBC streaming, and the commercial breaks on the primetime interrupt the flow of action, but when I see the hashtag #NBCfail, I just want someone to retweet it from the @firstworldpains account.

The only legitimate complaints I’ve seen against the network is that some of the coverage has been either lackluster or downright offensive.  Skipping the tribute to those killed in the London bombings to put an interview between Michael Phelps and Ryan Seacrest in the middle of the opening ceremonies was, one might say, uncouth.  Some of the schadenfreude exhibited by American commentators as people saw their Olympic dreams crushed has made me feel a little uneasy.  The disparity in the way commentators discuss female competitors and male competitors has also left me wanting more.  In this respect, I find the British commentators on the livestream to be much more amenable. Not to mention that the commentators — even on a 4 hour tape delay — couldn’t bother to look up who Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the World Wide Web) was before going on the air.  As a main feature of the celebration — and perhaps ironic that the web is coming back to bite NBC in so many ways — it was disrespectful to dismiss him as someone people don’t know.  That, and the first-day primetime coverage of the Gymnastics qualifiers was ENTIRELY THE AMERICAN TEAM.  I know we’re a bit of a jingoistic people, but the Olympics are about the whole world competing.

So far I’m impressed with NBC on the technological front, and I don’t think it’s fair to fault them for their decision to air some events live primetime.  That said, they need to get their act together and work on that primetime coverage to avoid creating another Romney-esque international incident (Exhibit A, Exhibit B).

On a lighter note… imagine how awkward this phone call to the Olympic Committee must have been?

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