While the XXX Olympiad is now over and the Paralymic Games are in full swing, one wonders whether NBC will change the way they cover the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. While Rio de Janeiro is a mere one hour ahead of EST, Sochi is 11 hours ahead so as I’m writing this today it’s actually tomorrow there. Neat trick but as we’ve seen, this should be a cause for concern for NBC.
Being broadcast (taped delayed or otherwise) on at least five cable channels, live streamed for U.S. cable subscribers, and online availability of non-U.S. network coverage through VPN there were more ways to watch the Olympics than ever before. Unfortunately, NBC didn’t change their archaic primetime model, a relic of pre-Internet days, and boy did they hear about it.
#NBCfail was hatched almost immediately after the Games began as a backlash to the network electing not to live stream Opening Ceremonies. The tape delayed broadcast cut the London terror attack memorial segment since “it wouldn’t be of interest to the American audience.” In NBC’s defense, Americans do tend to be rather insular, present company not at all excluded. There was also the flap over journalist Guy Adams being banned from Twitter due to his anti-NBC postings – ultimately turned out to be more of a #Twitterfail than a network fail. And the spoilers…but really, in this age of instant information is it avoidable? For me it wasn’t so much about the spoilers as the anchor commentary. Even if you had been able to avoid hearing results, half of the time Bob Costas & crew deflated your bubble of anticipation with a we-all-know-what-happened-already-wink-wink-nudge-nudge callousness.
There was also the overall stupidity factor. Fact check before you open your mouth and please, don’t try to fill in the blanks if you don’t know the sport. On the other hand, if you are there as an expert, show some of your expertise (that’s directed to you, Tim Daggett and Elfie Schlegel) but don’t talk over an athlete’s whole performance. Go crazy and assume the audience is at least somewhat informed. Educating the audience good, schmaltz bad.
Taking it a step further, can we please approach the Olympics as a news story rather than an entertainment piece? And from an international perspective rather than a jingoistic one? I don’t want to see fluff pieces about James Bond’s watering holes or how important the custom of taking tea is to the Brits. And honestly, I don’t want to hear from Michael Phelps before and after each heat. A bit on him before the swim coverage begins, a piece when he breaks Latynina’s record and a final interview after he won his last race would be enough, really.
I completely understand that NBC is approaching coverage from the business standpoint of maximizing revenue and not from the sports fan standpoint of maximizing coverage. But in the age of social media, they tried to maintain dictation (really more like a canned recording) rather than conversation. It’s true you can’t please all of the people all of the time, but you should have a response prepared for the critics and a plan for changing with the times. And quite frankly, you should at least occasionally take care of your viewers rather than always pandering to your corporate sponsors. This was a failed opportunity for NBC.
In my fantasy world (the one where I ran NBC’s Summer Olympic scheduling not the other ones) everything would be shown live, different sports would be shown on different channels so you’d always know where to go for which sport, and a tape delayed day’s highlights reel being shown from 7-11 PM – your Olympic USA Today as opposed to an Olympic Wall Street Journal. No qualifying heats would be shown during highlights, only medal rounds regardless of whether an American athlete had qualified or not. On late night coverage, bloopers, fluff and stupid things athletes, coaches, sporting associations, and the IOC say or tweet. Morning shows would remain the arena for athlete, family, and coach interviews and Matt Lauer and Al Roker would not be allowed to attempt any sports. Non-cable subscribers could view NBC’s online coverage (lord knows they sold enough ads). For a reasonable fee you could choose the country of origin to watch online coverage, so if you’re a Japanese grad student currently residing in the States or a Canadian expat, you could watch your native country’s feed rather than NBC’s. Since I’m not responsible for revenue, (it’s my fantasy, remember?) that’s how I’d do it.
I hope that NBC learned from London and change their model in time for Sochi. And there’s plenty of time to improve delivery of the Games in Rio without significantly hurting sponsorship and advertising revenues. It’s a new era in media and it seems inconceivable that they wouldn’t change with the times but do you think the network will change how they cover the Olympics? Will television coverage always be tape delayed? Do you think online coverage will or should be expanded to include non-cable subscribers? Can the bar for commentating be raised without disengaging the “average American audience”? How would you program the Olympics?