The Olympics are in full swing in London, and the world is tuning in to watch; and, of course, to indulge the fiction that the Olympics are some kind of great leveling field where nations come together in amity, setting aside politics to compete with integrity and live side by side for a few heady weeks of friendship and solidarity. In the midst of regressive sex testing of female athletes, rising expenses, a scandal over empty seats, aggressive evaluations for doping, and the usual trauma of qualifying and not qualifying, one issue is looming especially large: NBC’s utter failure to handle its Olympics coverage in the United States.
The network has landed a juicy and appealing contract with full rights to cover the Olympics, essentially taking them over as its own property. Winning the Olympics contract is a coup for any network, as it has an effective monopoly on coverage and gets to dictate how the programming is presented. People in the US who want to watch events must tune in to NBC, or seek out illicit news sources like pirated feeds streaming online.
Increasingly, that’s exactly what people are doing, because NBC is not fulfilling its duties to a viewing public that wants to see events in realtime. This is a recurring global issue with the Olympics, as viewers in disparate time zones struggle to watch the events they follow even though they might be taking place in the middle of the night or the small hours of the morning. Hardcore fans are willing to do whatever it takes to watch events live, even if it means staying up all night. The network appears to think that we are still living in an era when everyone cheerfully crowds around the television at a scheduled time to enjoy a tape delayed broadcast of events that happened twelve hours ago, though, and it seems genuinely shocked that this is not the case.
Even as recently as the 2008 Summer Olympics, that might have been true to some extent, but not in 2012. Anyone on Twitter during the Opening Ceremonies on Friday could have followed realtime Tweets from viewers in Britain following the event on their televisions, along with those from viewers around the world tapped into livestreams and other feeds, including realtime broadcasts of their own. Many US viewers weren’t interested in waiting for the scheduled broadcasts and found feeds to follow along, to join in the collective experience. By Friday night in the US, the Opening Ceremonies were stale news, but NBC insisted on broadcasting them anyway; and, along the way, the network cut a tribute to the 7/7 victims, which sparked an international outcry.
Evidently NBC believed that most of its viewers hadn’t seen the Opening Ceremonies yet, and that no one would notice if it cut an important component of the epic pageantry on display. Representatives even took to Twitter to defend the company, but viewers weren’t mollified in the least.
The network was wrong, and it kept being wrong as it insisted on delayed airing to position key events like gymnastics during prime time. When those events hit US airwaves, many viewers had already seen them, and if they hadn’t, they already knew the results; media around the world, including US media, had already reported them. Publications like The Washington Post and The New York Times were offering the realtime coverage their readers expected, and they certainly weren’t going to wait around for NBC to catch up.
The network even spoiled its own coverage by listing results on its website and discussing them on-air before they’d aired the events in question. US readers and viewers were not impressed with this turn of events; if the network wanted to maintain its stance on using tape delay, the least it could do is not ruin events for viewers willing to stick to its schedule.
Network officials showed some willingness to adapt and attempt to respond to criticisms from members of the public, but they still remained fixed in an outdated notion of media, especially broadcast media. With the rapid availability of the Internet for most people interested in Olympic events, there’s no reason to wait hours on end for those events to air on television, and so most didn’t. Viewers were also angered by programming decisions which tended to focus heavily on specific events, and also stressed the roles of US athletes.
NBC wanted to present America: The Pageant, scheduled on its own terms, and viewers were having no truck with it.
The drama over Olympics coverage highlighted one reason broadcast media is struggling in a new media landscape. If NBC doesn’t adapt its coverage, and quickly, the outright revolt from fans is not going to resolve, especially during large events like gymnastics and swimming finals. Viewers in a real-time, instant media landscape are not used to waiting, particularly US viewers, who are accustomed to getting what they want when they want it, not on a network’s schedule.
NBC may be getting reasonably healthy ratings for its primetime viewings, but the negative image it’s developing among fans who want realtime coverage is not going to magically go away if the network clicks its heels three times and thinks of home. Those same viewers are going to be less inclined to turn to NBC for coverage of other events in the future, and that could lead to a ratings drop, something advertisers will not look upon with good will.
The network still has an opportunity to make good with fans, but not if it waits much longer.