NBC’s Olympics strategy driving viewers crazy, but they’re watching anyway

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The Danny Boyle-directed Olympics opening ceremonies managed to transcend NBC's coverage of them. The network refused to broadcast the ceremonies live or online Friday, holding them for primetime, and its hosts blabbered over the whole thing, spoiling with nonstop nattering the moments the commercial breaks couldn't -- going to commercial as the opening riff of "Pretty Vacant" rang out? Really? Until I learned that NBC cut a tribute to U.K. terror victims, I thought the worst moment Friday was Bob Costas, musing during the Parade of Nations that "Winston Churchill once referred to Uganda as the pearl of Africa. Of course, he never met Idi Amin." (However, this moment was very popular with my Scottish wife.)

But sofa-bound whiners like me have a powerful tool this Olympics, Richard Sandomir reports: Twitter, which was buzzing all weekend with complaints about the broadcast. A lot of the carping was about NBC tape-delaying events till prime time, though the network is streaming all events on the Web (you need a cable or satellite subscription to see those, though):

But people want what they want when they want it — and they don’t want the video to freeze, skip, pixelate or buffer excessively. Some who wanted to watch Phelps race Ryan Lochte live (many hours before they raced, on delay, on NBC) were disappointed when the live streams seized up as if hexed by an NBC rival.


NBC’s live streaming strategy contains a wrinkle that was bound to ruffle some fans. In marquee sports like swimming, diving and gymnastics, the live feed runs once, with no replays available, until it has run in a packaged, delayed form on NBC. Indeed, it is not available to replay online until the network’s West Coast prime time show ends.

Heidi N. Moore, whose Twitter feed remains a must-stop for Olympics complaints, compared the streaming strategy to "forcing an entire nation of viewers to give CPR to a corpse." Moore offers a vague roadmap that computer-handy folks can follow to watch the BBC's Olympics coverage instead.

Also writing in the Guardian, Emma G. Keller dings NBC for focusing too much on U.S. athletes:

We didn't mind you cheering about Dana Vollmer in the women's butterfly on Sunday night, she won a gold medal and broke a world record after all. But when the first South African wins a gold medal in men's swimming (Cameron Van der Burgh in the men's 100 meter breast stroke) it would be nice to give him more than ten seconds of air time before racing over to gush about Team USA Brendan Hansen's bronze.

Keller does salute NBC for broadcasting footage of U.S. gymnast Aly Raisman's parents intensely weird behavior in the stands while she competed.

But does any of this whining mean anything in economic terms? NBC's opening-night numbers were its best ever, Ina Fried reports. "[T]here’s no way to know whether airing the Phelps race or the opening ceremonies live on TV would have decreased or increased prime-time viewing," writes Jeff Jarvis in response to the ratings-are-good argument, cautioning that NBC is "trying to preserve old business models in a new reality."

The bottom-line lesson for all media is that business models built on imprisonment, on making us do what you want us to do because you give us no choice, is no strategy for the future. And there’s only so long you can hold off the future.

  • 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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