À bientôt, Vancouver, it’s been fun — what we saw of you

1 March 2010

Every time the Olympic Games come to a close, there’s always that twinge of sadness, of let-down. It’s to be expected, for it is a melancholy moment when the torch is extinguished. As each Olympics has ended I’ve always felt the same way: “Is that all? Over so soon? It feels like we were just getting started!”

I used to think this feeling of dissatisfaction, of un-satiation, was normal—but no longer. I’ve come to realize that, along with exemplary sportsmanship, tales of tragedy and triumph, and edge-of-one’s-seat finishes, there’s another common factor to every Olympics I have ever watched: the dismal television coverage of the National Broadcasting Company.

This is not the first time I’ve ranted about NBC’s Olympics coverage, and I’m not alone. This time around I’m joined by the CEO of Business Insider, Henry Blodget, who among his several incisive articles on the topic included the most concise summary of the problem: “right now, for us, NBC isn’t the network that brings us the Olympics. It’s the network that prevents us from watching the Olympics. And we hate NBC for that.”[Business Insider, 15 February 2010]

Blodget is right. Not only did NBC deliberately not show events live—even on weekend afternoons, when its potential viewers had a genuine expectation to watch them—its agreement with the IOC meant that it could actively prevent people from watching in any other way.

I used to think that maybe NBC had good reason for wanting to tape-delay the Games. When they were in Sydney, and the action was happening in what was the middle of the night for Americans, it kind of made sense. Kind of. So too—but to a lesser extent—the ungodly early-morning hours Athens engendered.

But when the west coast of the United States, sitting in the same time zone as Vancouver, is forced to wait an extra three hours, while the east coast watches the smattering of evening events that NBC did carry live, just so those events will air during prime time… well, that’s just asinine.

The good news: ESPN will bid for the 2014 Winter and 2016 Summer Games, and in doing so has pledged to “discontinue the tape-delay template.” John Skipper, ESPN’s executive vice president for content, stated the obvious: “I don’t think nonlive is sports fan-friendly.” God bless you, ESPN. I pray that you do everything you possibly can to win this bid.

The bad news: “With 25.2 million viewers watching the Winter Olympics in prime time, NBC Universal feels vindicated by a strategy that features tape delay of some events and shows nothing live in the Mountain and Pacific time zones.”[The New York Times, 24 February 2010]

I feel the need to respond to several of the points in the Times’ article in turn.

“835 hours of programming, including 50 hockey games, can be challenging to navigate and [NBC has] tools in place to help direct viewers,” said one NBC marketing exec.

I take exception to both parts of this statement. It need not be “challenging to navigate,” with the proper user interface. Moreover, NBC’s “tools” were distinctly unhelpful. Its TV listings web page gave viewers a timetable listing the various NBC channels, with unlabeled grey boxes showing when and where Olympic content would air. Viewers had to roll over these grey areas to trigger fly-out boxes containing info on what events were included. This resulted in hunting through numerous fly-outs to find the event they wanted to watch, usually in vain.

One pundit wisely suggested that the better navigation tool would be a timetable of all the sports events, rather than the network channels, so viewers could start with the sport they were interested in. The fly-out information would tell which channel was airing it.

That might work, except for one little problem: NBC shows so very little of the Games that finding an active fly-out link in that grid would be a rare island of success in a sea of futility.

“Despite the restrictions, nearly 35 million unique users have visited NBCOlympics.com and 62 million page views have been delivered to mobile devices.”

These figures do not address what percentage of those unique users visited the site in the hope of finding out how to watch the Games live, only to be sorely disappointed. They also, in my estimation, are bolstered by the number of page views that were page refreshes caused by glitches in the Silverlight viewer. I lost track of how many times NBC’s live feed of a curling match would either freeze completely, or go to a commercial break and never return, playing the same goddamned Lexus or Edward Jones advertisement ad nauseam et infinitum.

“NBC is expected to lose at least $200 million on the Vancouver Games.”

You know, I hear this number a lot. Folks used it in comparison to the perennial cash cow that is the Super Bowl. The recurring question that was asked was, how can the Olympics lose so much money when the Super Bowl is so lucrative?

The fact of the matter is that NBC has not lost money in its last six airings of the Games. And although it paid the IOC a lot more for the rights this year than it has for Winter Games in the past, total U.S. ad sales have steadily risen over the past four Winter Games as well.

The results of Vancouver 2010 are yet to be seen, but here’s a notion: perhaps NBC did not actually lose money on this. Maybe that prologue was part of a plan to guilt-trip viewers into saying, “oh, poor NBC, with its pretty peacock, and its cute little Costas, and its ‘must-see’ glory days all but over, we should try to help it get back on its feet.”

“It’s very challenging to capture the American audience for 17 days,” Gary Zenkel, the president of NBC Olympics said, “and many of us have been doing this since 1992, some since 1988.”

The problem is, it’s not 1988 any more.

In the past, even as recently as the 2008 Beijing games, I tried to enter a daytime news blackout so that I might be able to watch the prime time highlight reel with some semblance of anticipation. Sometimes it worked, sometimes not. Either way, it was unfair that I might have to remain unaware of the day’s other important events simply because an ill-timed glance at a television or computer screen, or twist of the radio dial, could spoil that evening’s pending entertainment.

Now that social media are all the rage, it is virtually impossible to sustain that bubble. And there’s absolutely no reason to do so.

If irony was an Olympic sport, NBC would take the gold. Even as a live curling match continued, the NBC online feed showed this instead. Image ©2010 NBC Universal.I mentioned before that NBC actively prevented Americans from watching the Games live. Only hockey and curling (and an incomplete selection of both) were available online. If a fan tried to go through the official Vancouver 2010 web site to find a live feed of their favourite sport, even if they tried to pretend they were in another country they would ultimately run up against an IP-based blockade, with a “this site is restricted” placard instead of a live stream.

I was lucky to find a number of bootleg streams online. I won’t mention them by name—I’m hopeful they’ll still be around for London 2012—but they were an adequate alternative to, well, to seeing nothing at all. Sure, the commentators were often speaking in a language I was unable to place. And sure, their feed of Eurosport cut away from the alpine slalom events long before last-seeded Marjan Kalhor could make her historic runs. (First Iranian woman ever in the Winter Games! and she finished all four of her runs so, technically speaking, she beat USA golden girl Lindsey “DNF” Vonn in both events!) But even with those limitations there was nothing on NBC to compare with the immediacy of the live feeds.

In addition, after Shaun White’s coach dropped the s-bomb prior to Shaun’s “victory lap,” NBC put everything on a delay, with a censor standing by the “dump button.” During NBC’s (surprisingly) live airing of the men’s 50K cross-country event on the final day of the Games, I found that even though the online feed had to pass through Eurosport’s transmission, get encoded by a bootlegger, travel bit-by-bit through the wires from Europe, bounce through my wireless network and get reassembled through a buffer in my video player, it was still appearing on my laptop screen a full five seconds earlier than the broadcast on the television screen.

“The market has told us loud and clear that it places the most value on the big, diverse audience that gathers in front of the television at night,” Zenkel said.

Fine. Keep the one-size-fits-all prime time highlight package, with its inexplicable diversions of blind sled dogs and “sustainable” logging camps. Just give actual sports fans something to watch, live, as it’s happening. Please, NBC.

It’s important to note that what Zenkel calls “the market” is not the audience—it’s the advertisers. No matter how many thousands of people post on Twitter with #nbcsucks and #nbcfail hashtags, NBC can call them a “vocal minority”—a statement that is, sadly, quantifiably true: TechCrunch’s analysis that shows a 73% negative rating of NBC’s coverage came from a sample of nearly 20,000 tweets and 5,700 blog posts or forum comments; this represents a mere 0.074% of NBC’s total viewer numbers.

As long as McDonald’s and Coca-Cola and the rest are willing to pay them big bucks, NBC has no reason to care about dissatisfied viewers. I suppose our only recourse as viewers is 1) not to watch, which would be a drag; and 2) boycott those advertisers. I want to recommend the latter, yet admittedly I continue to subscribe to DirecTV and use my AT&T-locked iPhone, and I haven’t pulled the plug on my Cisco router.

The bottom line is, 25.2 million people—myself among them—watched the Olympics on NBC in prime time, and NBC is using that figure to claim that people want to watch the Olympics the way NBC wants them to.

Here’s the thing. If you lock people up, with a tantalizing view of a supermarket across the street through the bars of their prison window, and once a day you give them a sandwich made of stale bread and dog feces, sooner or later some of them will wind up eating it. A reasonable person will say it’s because the people are starving, and they have no other choice.

NBC will say it’s because people like to eat shit.

  1. WingsWest
    March 1st, 2010 at 14:29 | #1

    I am DUMBFOUNDED at NBC for this. The Olympics is a sporting event. Yet we have to watch garbage just to see a few select highlights of tape delayed sports!!
    The worst part is that their decision ruined the chance to watch the Olympics with my 6 yr old son and 8 yr old daughter. Despite being inspired by Shaun White or Joannie Rochet, they cannot watch them perform because NBC only shows the event at 11:00pm and they have to go to bed for school!! Unbelievable!!
    NBC, you BLEW it!! Your coverage stunk up the place!!!

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