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.

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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