We're halfway through London 2012, and the games seem to be following the standard script of any other Olympics in recent memory: a scandal involving one of the sports, allegations of doping, Michael Phelps racking up gold medals, and, of course, widespread complaining about NBC's Olympics coverage. Complainers even have their own Twitter hashtag to vent their frustrations with NBC.
Although it seems to be drawing the largest share of criticism about
about their coverage of the games, I'm not too upset with the fact that NBC
shows the major events in prime time via tape delay. The fact that London is
anywhere between five and eight hours ahead of the United States makes
tape delay a necessity. The fact that NBC wants to reserve the most
attractive events for prime time, when the most people watch TV and when
makes its money, is simple business sense; even when the Olympics were
being held in Salt Lake City or Vancouver and there was no significant time difference to
NBC tape-delayed the biggest events in order to show them in prime-time.
My gripe is with the lousy quality of that prime-time coverage.
To be sure, NBC's Olympics coverage has always left much to be desired. I wrote about its shortcomings back in 1996. The network's formula for its prime time Olympic broadcasts - heavily-abridged coverage of actual events, ridiculous overexposure of certain athletes, patronizing and/or insulting announcers, little to no mention of sports that do not feature or favor Americans, a barrage of melodramatic athlete profiles, and silly, off-topic "human interest"
stories (including tonight's excruciatingly inane feature on Scottish bagpipers), all punctuated by a tiresome stream of commercials and hosted by the ever-annoying Bob Costas - seems to have changed little in the intervening sixteen years.
As such, the numerous infractions committed by NBC one week into its coverage of the games - from clumsily editing the opening ceremonies (which could only be seen in the United States via tape delay) to coverage that ignores compelling stories about non-American athletes, to abysmal gymnastics coverage, to inappropriately-timed commercials, to commercial interruptions mid-event (and failure to return to the event at the point where it was left off, even though it's already on tape delay) - are simply par for the course.
NBC, which has the sole rights to broadcast the Olympics in the United States (and
will continue to have those rights for the foreseeable future), has made it clear that they don't care what critics think about the way they present their coverage: “it’s not everyone’s inalienable right to get whatever they want,” says NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus. As long as the games are getting good ratings (funny how that happens when your network has a monopoly on Olympics coverage), they'll continue to present it as an overwrought, over-edited, jingoistic quasi-reality-show tailored for people who aren't big sports fans. After all, sports aficionados will follow the Olympics regardless; NBC is trying capture the viewership of everyone else: they know that the only time a significant portion of the American population will care anything at all about beach volleyball, synchronized swimming, diving, hurdling, rowing, discus throwing, or water polo is during the Summer Olympics.
There is, to be fair, live daytime programming of some events on NBC's broadcast and cable channels (which, by virtue of being live, is less likely to be over-edited or laden with "human interest" stories), and NBC is also providing live internet streaming video of all of the events (with the notable exception of the opening and closing
ceremonies) to anybody who already has a cable subscription. But for those of us who work during the day, those viewing options aren't always available: if we want to watch, we're stuck with the prime-time gruel NBC feeds us.
And yes, that also means we know the results of Olympic events well before the prime time broadcast begins. For all the complaining about "spoilers," the time difference between when the events happen and when they're shown on TV makes them inevitable. This is especially true in the era of smartphones, Twitter and Facebook, where it truly requires effort to avoid spoilers (and NBC itself hasn't helped in this regard, either, revealing the results of much-anticipated events by way of either the nightly newscast preceding primetime Olympic coverage or promos during the programming).
The harsh truth is that those of us who hate NBC's presentation of the games have little recourse. There are, as I noted, live internet feeds available for those able to see them, and for the truly tech-savvy there are ways around NBC's monopoly entirely. But for those of us who can't stay home during the day to watch live coverage of that weightlifting competition or who can't access live streaming video of those taekwando matches from work, it's either NBC in primetime or nothing at all.
Which is why I get the results of events via internet and smartphone by day, and watch NBC's coverage on my DVR at night. That way, I can fast forward through all the commercials, human interest stories, sports I don't care about and irritating interludes from Bob Costas. It's not perfect, but it makes it at least somewhat bearable.
As I wrote during the 2010 Winter Olympics, "NBC will stick to their craptastic formula for as long as the ratings
say it works. Which is why I guarantee you that NBC's coverage of the
2012 Summer Olympics from London will suck just as much as their current
and previous efforts." Since I was have been proven right, I can now go on record as guaranteeing that coverage of the 2014 winter games in Sochi, the 2016 summer games in Rio, and, well, any future Olympics broadcast by NBC, will also suck.
(UPDATE: But don't take my word for it. Listen to Dick Ebersol, the person largely responsible for the way NBC has, is, and will continue to present the Olympics: basically, it's a television event, not a sporting event.)