Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Why does NBC's Olympics coverage suck?

Fourteen years ago, I wrote this Daily Cougar article about NBC's lousy Olympics coverage. Replace "Atlanta" with "Vancouver" and it's just as relevant and accurate today, because NBC is still using their same tired and irritating Olympics broadcast formula: reliance on tape-delay for much of the action (the folks on the Pacific Coast - i.e. the time zone where the Olympics are actually happening - aren't getting any live coverage at all); abridged coverage focusing on American athletes, even if they completely suck at the sport they're competing in; the ever-annoying Bob Costas; the incessant commercial interludes; and the inane "human interest" stories sprinkled throughout the actual sports coverage (this evening they even interrupted Olympics coverage to present us with a story about a blind sled dog!).

NPR's Linda Holmes shares my frustration:
The mere structure of the NBC coverage has left a great deal to be desired this time around, and it came to a head last night when they shuffled the much-anticipated USA-Canada hockey game off to MSNBC, in part to use NBC as a showcase for probably the least anticipated of the figure skating events: ice dancing. (Along with some speed skating, bobsled, and the men's super-G, which happened earlier in the day -- oh, and the much-hyped ski cross event.)

The basic problem with NBC's coverage is that they haven't improved the fundamentals of the coverage in spite of massive changes in the way people take in content. The prime-time coverage is largely as it's always been: a few events (including figure skating) are heavily showcased, a few other events (most skiing and speed skating fall into this category) are usually shown in an abbreviated format regular viewers instantly recognize as "USA-Plus" (meaning you see the Americans, plus a few other people who are relevant because they either do very well or wipe out spectacularly), and two events -- hockey and curling -- are shown as complete events, but they're shoved off to cable.

Needless to say, NBC's coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics has been a source of outrage throughout the interwebs. The practice of showing many events on tape-delay, rather than as they happen, has been a particular point of ire. Thanks to the internet, after all, everybody can find out who won an event in real time. NBC's practice of videotaping events which happen earlier in the day and then broadcasting an edited version of the competition during prime time is as insulting to sports fans as it is antiquated. So why do they continue to do it? As Deadspin's Dashiell Bennett explains, NBC does it simply because they know that they can get away with it:

NBC claims that most Americans don't care if the broadcasts are live, and that's probably true. Most of them work during the day and can only watch at night, so it honestly makes no difference to them when the sports were recorded. NBC caters to those folks, because they believe the Olympics are sports for people who don't care about sports. The outrage is coming mostly from sports fans, who are obsessed enough to follow live scoreboards during the day and DVR events they can't be home for and know that sports provide enough real drama that it doesn't need to be manufactured by highlight packages. They love sports enough that they will watch imperfect coverage of pre-taped events. Why break your back making them happy?

The people NBC needs to woo aren't sports fans. They broadcast the Olympics for people who like stories about polar bears and gymnasts with rare diseases and speed skaters whose sisters have cancer. Yes, these people are out there and to justify the insane investment dollars they have to watch too. It's a mini-series that happens to have some sports in it.

Maybe so. But as NPR's Holmes argues, that's just not the way people, whether they be hardcore sports fans or casual viewers, are going to watch events such as the Olympics anymore:

This just isn't the way people follow ... anything, really, at this point. At one time, you could broadcast events hours after they happened, and you'd have a reasonable chance that people could live in a bubble while they were waiting. That is not the world we live in anymore. The fantasy that is indulged when Bob Costas speaks breathlessly about an upcoming ski race where he already knows exactly what happened is no longer even a fragile fantasy; it's a blatant fiction that everyone knows about.

Naturally, NBC wants to kick the big events into prime-time for ratings reasons, and it's hard to argue with their ratings successes for these Olympics, which have been massive. Nevertheless, they're clinging to a broadcast model that's not only on its last legs -- it's on the last toe of the last leg. This isn't Wide World Of Sports -- people don't want to wait around for when your big sports show happens to take place.

In defense of their coverage, NBC has argued that "you can't please everyone" and mention the fact that 1980's "Miracle on Ice" was shown via tape-delay, as if that somehow justifies the practice thirty years later. Bennett counters and offers a compromise:

However, if the "Miracle on Ice" happened today and it hadn't been available to watch live, 30 Rock would be burned to the ground and Jeff Zucker would put to sea on a barge. "You can't please everyone" isn't an excuse to not try. Set aside sports networks for sports. Partner with ESPN, Versus, and the Golf Channel if necessary, and show everything live that's possible to show live. Then later that evening, the casual, human-interest obsessed viewer can still tune in and enjoy a night of spoiler-free Olympic television. The network is giving away the results on its own website ("live blog" does not equal "live coverage", btw) so there is no justification for maintaining the surprise.

The casual fan would never notice the difference and sports fans everywhere would love them for it. It wouldn't be that hard to please everybody, if only NBC would try.

Yeah, but they won't. 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.

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