If Olympics broadcasts are so bad, why is NBC doing so well with them?

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Linda Holmes takes on the question that has blunted all the criticism of Olympics coverage in the United States: How can NBC suck so bad (if you listen to Twitter) and crush (if you look at the ratings) at the same time? Holmes says good ratings aren’t an adequate answer:

In my experience, when critics savage Two And A Half Men, no one eye-rolls that CBS is in business to make money. When the Emmys nominate mostly little-seen series as the best of television, no one says they should be considered failed projects because they don’t really align with the business plan. There are multiple ways to fail and multiple ways to succeed, and when audiences complain about the coverage they’re getting, it’s not usually because they think it won’t enrich the company.


The issue, Holmes writes, is stewardship: How is NBC handling the public trust it acquired, however inadvertently, when it wrote the International Olympic Committee a check for $4.38 billion? One thing I’d add to Holmes’ argument is that NBC and its parent, Comcast, were delighted to find they’re not losing money and may break even on the Olympics broadcasts. This is one of the rare cases in which TV could learn something from newspapers: If the best you can hope for is breaking even, why not try something different? (Post-Lehrer disclosure: I have made this point before.)

Inevitably such a discussion leads to how the BBC, a genuine public trust partially supported by a mandatory public subsidy, is handling the games. It added 24 live feeds, to which nearly a third of the country has tuned in. Its Web player works much better than NBC’s, in my experiments using a VPN, and it doesn’t limit what you can watch, as NBC’s streams sometimes do. And its coverage is 97 percent less sappy and doesn’t force you to sit through seemingly endless beach volleyball matches so you can see the freaking gymnastics.

But it’s next to impossible to have the nuanced discussion Holmes craves without taking shelter from the withering gales of good news blowing out of 30 Rock about these games. The Olympics have goosed ratings for “Today” and the “NBC Nightly News.” Web traffic has gone bananas, too: more than 1.1 billion page views to NBCOlympics.com, Marc Berman reports. From MediaLife magazine:

Gabby Douglas, to-date, is the “most clicked athlete” with 18.27 million views; total video streams are now at 102.6 million (which is more than the 75.5 million for the entire 2008 Beijing Olympics); live video streams have reached 45 million, which is more than triple the total live streams for the Beijing Olympics; and viewers are spending more than 27 minutes per visit in the site (which is 118 percent ahead of Beijing).

Douglas is followed in the top-five “most clicked athlete” list by swimmer Michael Phelps and then her gymnastics teammates: McKayla Maroney, Jordyn Wieber and Aly Raisman.

The IOC says NBC can do what it likes with the Olympics. IOC spokesperson Mark Adams told the AP’s Graham Dunbar: “Clearly they know their audience best. They have got absolutely record figures for these games. They tried to get the moment where it would reach the biggest possible audience, which they did.”

That audience is also mostly happy with NBC’s coverage, according to a Pew survey that shows 29 percent of Americans believe the coverage has been excellent and 47 percent say it has been good. Only 5 percent say it has been poor.

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  • http://twitter.com/jrblev John Blevins

    I’d pay money, 100 bucks roughly, for live feed on my hdtv of all sports WITHOUT the commentary of Al Trautwig, Bob Costas (but especially Al) and simillar

  • Will Phillips

    You can explain the good ratings because people want to watch the Olympics and there is no other choice!! I know people are banging on about the BBC, but really, the coverage has been amazing. You can watch every single sport/event, live on TV or on the internet. Also coverage on the internet allows you to pause browse if you have missed any of the action. And all this with NO commercial breaks. NBC – epic fail. 

  • Anonymous

    Isn’t the Olympics itself supposed to be a public trust?
    The BBC obviously takes its public-trust role seriously.
    NBC is actually the opposite: it doesn’t trust the public and so manipulates time shifts, breakaways to commercials at climactic moments, etc. to maximize its profits, rather than give people what they want.

  • Anonymous

     “NBC has a monopoly and plenty of time to brainwash interested viewers who have no choice what to watch. ”

    Couldn’t have said it better myself.

    How impressive would NBC’s ratings be if Americans had the choice to watch BBC’s coverage?

  • Anonymous

    on one level there is no “competition” for other exclusive sporting events: the masters, world series, wimbledon, daytona etc. but there IS competition from other programing on some 100-plus cable and satellite channels, including various seasonal sporting events, i.e. baseball, tennis etc. there is always plenty for someone to criticize. everyone doesn’t agree on anything. with the olympics, there are many events going on at the same time, so it’s not even possible to broadcast everything live. plus, there is a 6-hour time difference between london and ny. as for the criticism being leveled at nbc: shrug. i have enjoyed what olympic coverage i have watched, including some of the things being criticized the most. i suspect many, many people feel the same way.

  • JH

    The high ratings in no way reflect the quality of NBC’s coverage – that should be obvious to everyone when you consider the fact there is no choice for viewers who want to watch the games on TV when they get home from work. 

  • Anonymous

    With no competition for this quadrennial event, why WOULDN’T NBC post good ratings?

  • http://wallstreetexaminer.com/ Lee Adler

    NBC has a monopoly and plenty of time to brainwash interested viewers who have no choice what to watch. 

    I’ve been watching both CTV and NBC in Canada, and in my opinion, CTV’s coverage, live for the most part with prime time replays, is far superior to NBCs. 

    I remember Jim McKay and Al Michaels broadcasting live Olympics coverage. That was TV sports at its finest. NBC has reduced the Olympics, one of the greatest sporting events in the world, to a soap opera replay. Bread and circuses. Shame on them. 

  • Anonymous

    The IOC is a corrupt institution who only cares about money, and their opinion reflects that. Do you Roger Goodell would allow his Super Bowl to be shown on delayed basis in the the USA? Of course not. It helps NBC that the people tuning in to the delayed broadcast are not sports fans. It’s soccer moms who normally watch reality TV.

    As an example, NBC didn’t show the 100-meter Finals until 11pm, even though almost 2 billion people around the world saw it live, and that’s as sad as it is pathetic.