Thoughts on NBC’s Olympic TV coverage

Most of this post is only tangentially about soccer but as I seem to have become the media guru amongst the Bigsoccer bloggers, I’m going to write about this here. If you’re not from the US or just don’t otherwise care about the way the Olympics are covered here, than you can skip this one. I just wanted to include this here to avoid any of those “Isn’t this a soccer blog” whimpers in the comments.

Blogging buddy Dave Lifton and I exchanged emails last week about NBC’s coverage of the Olympics and why I think the IOC would benefit from going to ABC/ESPN when they’re next negotiatated before before the Sochi and Rio games.

It’s hard to compare the coverage of an Olympics in a US friendly timezone to those in an unfriendly one (like London) or a really unfriendly one like Sochi or Beijing. But one thing that can be compared is the online coverage. Why did NBC reduce it’s live online coverage of events to only the hockey and curling? I think it was on Dan Levy’s podcast that I heard someone say that NBC delays and embargos primetime events because not only does it work (and ratings this week indicate that it clearly does) but that it’s the only way they know. The problem isn’t that they’re showing things on tape, the problem is that they’re only showing things on tape. I completely understand showing premier events that are hard to package live such as alpine skiing on tape, but why not offer the option to fans to watch it live either on cable or on the internet? The answer is, that NBC simply is happy doing to way they always have and that NBC simply doesn’t understand young sports fans.

NBC views its Olympic audience in two primary batches. Here they are:

  1. This first group are what they perceive to be sports fans. They believe these fans to pretty much be the over-40, right-wing leaning, beer-swilling couch dwellers that they program football towards. All those ads where the guy chooses the beer over the women? That’s who they think this is. They believe these fans won’t watch the Olympics because it’s not football, they won’t watch women’s sports, and there are too many foreigners around. Pretty much, NBC thinks all sports fans are Norman Chad.
  2. Because NBC doesn’t think a sports fan audience exists for the Olympics, they instead program primetime coverage towards a second audience, one I call “stirrup pant-wearing 44-year old women from Tulsa.” NBC loves this audience. This is Jay Leno’s audience. This audience wants cheap non-challenging laughs, along with smiling, happy, non-threatening and preferably caucasian American winners being interviewed by a smiling, happy, non-threatening caucasian host and when figure skating or gymnastics roll around, they want a version of American Idol with flags. This is the audience that NBC programs its Olympics coverage towards.

But there’s a third audience out there that NBC just totally ignores. This audience is made up of younger sports fans, ones reared on a diet of live sports, instantanous results, international play, and blogging. This younger audience, the one commenting on Deadspin, the one buying Bill Simmons’ books, the one tweeting during live games is the one that NBC simply ignores. NBC either doesn’t know it exists or more likely, just doesn’t care to change its coverage away from an old 80’s/90’s template that has worked in the past.

This audience is the audience that craves live coverage because anything else is an insult to our intelligence. This younger audience spends its time in a borderless world where the web and social media make taped delayed coverage impossible because we’re always going to find out the results. It’s this audience who keeps a webcast on at work, or who works from home with a TV on at the background, or who has a Blackberry with a slingbox feed playing on his desk that NBC simply doesn’t believe exists. They’d rather go with the aformentioned stirrup pant wearers who think that Twitter is a naughty euphomism for sex.

Finally, the fact the 1980 Miracle on Ice was televised on tape means absolutely nothing today. Today, any one of us can turn on our TV or boot up our PC and watch nearly every televised sporting event in the world live and then watch it again on-demand once it’s concluded. That wasn’t possible in 1980. It wasn’t concievable in 1980. It’s as relevant to the current debate on NBC’s Olympic coverage as is compare Benz’s Patent Motorwagen in today’s debate on Toyota’s safety.

It doesn’t have to be one or the other. It can be both a sporting event and a cultural event. It can have both sporting events (like track and hockey) and reality shows (like gymnastics and figure skating) NBC has never tried the middle ground. Even if NBC doesn’t want to interrupt MSNBC or CNBC’s afternoon schedule of screaming morons, they could still put live coverage of big events online, where most of the people who want to watch it live would have no problem finding it. Then, they could target ads specifically to this audience rather than stirrup pant wearers they adore so dear. But that would require a bit of intelligence, something that we all know NBC has very little of up and down its network management chain.
I disagree here and I think ESPN could do a good job with the Olympics. For all the Stuart Scotts and Chris Bermans there are really talented “heads” like Mike Tirico, Chris Fowler, Bob Ley, Rece Davis, Karl Ravech, Steve Levy, Sage Steele, Trey Wingo and on and on. It’s easy to only remember the idiots, but ESPN has lots of really talented people there. Also, who’s to say that ESPN can’t just go pluck Costas for the Olympics. Costas isn’t the problem. If not Costas, I’d pick Fowler to be the new face of the Olympics.

ESPN does understand this younger audience. They have shows like PTI that have appealed to this demo for a long time. They’ve understood the extreme sports audience the IOC wants since before practically anyone else in sports media. They have one of the best web-presences anywhere and one of its biggest stars in Bill Simmons. Finally, ESPN has an online platform in ESPN 360 that it uses correctly, to complement its TV coverage with webcasts of stuff the network broadcasts on TV as well as stuff it doesn’t. (Last week’s America’s Cup is a good example).

As a final aside, why are none of NBC’s studio hosts ever African-American? It’s always Costas (white, unless lilliputian has become a protected minority), Al Michaels, Mary Carillo, Jim Lampley, etc. If you read this table, there hasn’t been a black NBC Olympics host since Greg Gumbel (who also would be great for ESPN) in 1996 and before him, the last one was his brother Bryant in 1988. That’s a little strange, isn’t it?

In the end, it comes down to this. Why is it that in 2010, when the rest of the world is watching live coverage of the Olympics on their TVs, mobiles, and PCs, Americans must wait and watch it spoonfed to us by an affable host in bitesized chunks later that night?

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11 thoughts on “Thoughts on NBC’s Olympic TV coverage

  1. Good article. The reason has to do with the rights fees that NBC payed for the Olympics. This 100% has to do with what advertisers are willing to pay for eye-balls in the U.S.

    I believe the NBC rights fees paid to air the Olympics is close to 10x what CTV paid (for example).

  2. I dunno, man. I think your criticism is more than a little off-base, or should I say out-of-date. What you write is exactly how I felt about NBC’s coverage of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Starting in 2000, NBC started using their cable channels to supplement the network coverage. NBC has always treated the cable coverage different from the network coverage. The network coverage is indeed aimed at the Jay Leno crowd, but the cable coverage is aimed at sports fans. You get a lot fewer athlete profiles on cable, and lot more uninterrupted coverage. (I watched three complete hockey games yesterday, missing only a fraction of a minute here and there when they tried to squeeze in a quick ad during a play stoppage.)

    To use the current Olympics as your example of how NBC is doing things wrong is a little unfair. This is a Winter Olympics, which has less going on and is spread a little thin. Let’s remember how they covered Beijing in 2008. 24-hour-a-day coverage! There was always at least one cable channel showing Olympic programming, often two. With that plus the online video, I saw every event I wanted to see (which is a lot — I’m an Olympic nut).

    Now, I admit that NBC’s online offering for Vancouver is a little disappointing, but that’s only in contrast to 2008, which was incredibly ambitious. NBC’s 2008 online video system must have been expensive, and I highly suspect the only reason we got what we did was because Microsoft was largely paying for it. The 2008 online video system was implemented in Silverlight, if you remember, and Microsoft was hoping the Olympics would get their plug-in installed on millions of PCs and Macs.

    So speaking as an Olympaholic who spends every spare minute glued to the tube for two weeks every two years, I wouldn’t have a problem with ESPN getting the Olympics. But they damned well better reach the standard set by NBC: at least three cable channels, 24-hour-a-day coverage of the summer games, and every single sport covered.

  3. i’ve find the winter olympics boring. I’ve can only name one athelete and i only know him from the last winter olympics when i knew none.

    it also hurts that i’m not white. Dark faces aren’t a requirement for me to watch. That said after someone pointed out how white an event it was from the crowd to the athletes it’s an entire event devoid of many people of color. Probably for the same reason i don’t watch, it’s boring to watch.

    coverage wise, all i ever see on is curling. i have little interest in shuffleboard on ice.

  4. Actually, I heard more than one 1980 US hockey match live on the radio. Then watched again on tape delay. So keep in mind that it is a regression.

  5. Cue best Shatner impression…

    Curling is like chess on diamond chessboard. It has the strategy of geonuclear politics, the drama of Hamlet, and it can all be done while drinking alcohol.

    I will not stand for this baseless defaming of the great and honorable sport that is curling. Not on this blog anyway! It is much more than shuffleboard on ice.

    It is so much more…

  6. NBC sucks at sports and the reason they suck at sports is Dick Ebersol! Why is when some guy named Dick is in charge, things get FUBAR.

    Another idea, why doesn’t the IOC take a few indoor sports say, Volleyball or Wrestling, and move them over to the winter games? They could also add a sport like Ballroom dancing or dodgeball and futsal to the winter games. This could make the winter games somewhat more interesting.

  7. NBC’s coverage of the Winter X games sports has been rather disappointing. At the current rate of their decline, NBC won’t be able to afford to bid on the Olympics when their contract runs out.

  8. The thing that floors me about the coverage is that my mother in law, who lives in the same time zone as Vancouver, has to call my wife to find out the results because they are on tape delay on the west coast.

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