Over the weekend, unless you happened to be under a rock, or in some other location without a TV or Internet access, you know there was a significant debate on the Web and throughout social media about how NBC Universal has handled the broadcast of the 2012 Olympics. Friday was dominated by the media consortium's decision not to air or stream the Opening Ceremony live, a decision that came under further fire when the tape delayed broadcast turned out to be significantly edited. When action resumed on Saturday, the source of controversy shifted -- as it seemingly does every four years -- to NBC's decision to delay the airing of medal events in showcase sports (swimming, diving, gymnastics, athletics) to primetime, even though we live in the age of interconnectivity, when "Spoiler Alerts" are at best a futile effort. The surest sign this decision was not popular on the social Web was the arrival of an @NBCDelayed Twitter feed on Sunday afternoon.
If you follow me on Twitter, you know by now that I find NBC's answer to those of who criticize it (basically, "Watch the live stream, you whiners.") to be, well, less than adequate. However, as a person who believes in logic and reason, I realize that this topic is far more complex than it appears on the surface. Follow me after the jump for a lengthy explanation as to why.
For starters, I must say, though I am loathe to admit it, that NBC is correct in tape delaying the big events -- from the financial perspective. There's a simple reason for this. The Olympics, and international sport in general, would be in a world of hurt without the vast sums of money NBC Universal, or any other hypothetical American rights holder, pays the IOC to air the Games. Ninety percent of the IOCs revenue is distributed to other participants in the Olympic Movement, the international federations, national Olympic committees, and, most crucially, the Olympic Organizing Committees, and a sizable percentage of that money comes from this country.
Up until May of this year the IOC and the U.S. Olympic Committee were engaged in a fairly bitter dispute over how to distribute the vast amounts of money American sponsors and broadcasters pay to support the Games. This stalemate prevented U.S. bids for future Olympics, and is a significant reason why Chicago's bid for 2016 crashed spectacularly. Now that this argument is resolved, the Games' return here is much more possible.
To understand how much the U.S. contributes, you simply need to look at the IOC's own marketing literature (pages 26 and 27 in particular). Since the United States is the biggest TV market in the world, which happens to be the only developed country without a public broadcaster operating as a major network (sorry PBS), the market truly does reign when it comes to TV rights. For the 2006-08 Games, the IOC grabbed nearly $2.6 billion in broadcast rights from broadcasters around the world -- compared to just a little more than $2.4 billion in sponsorship money. NBC provided just shy of $1.6 billion of that money on its own. For the 2010-12 cycle, NBC's costs rose to nearly $2.2 billion out of a worldwide total of just shy of $4 billion. While these costs will stay relatively stable for the next eight years, NBC is paying $4.4 billion for rights the four games to be held between 2014 and 2020, they had to pony up for two cycles, and they outbid Fox and ESPN by a king's ransom to do so.
While it's true that viewers in basically every other country in the world get to see events live and with reliable streaming, they're also probably going to be tuning into stations that aren't paying anywhere near as much (if anything at all) to air the Games, meaning they have less financial pressure. If you go back to the IOC's marketing piece, you'll notice that Europe, which has more than twice the population of the U.S., pays a fraction of the rights fees (not even $1 billion for 2010-12). That's because a consortium of European broadcasters, most of which are government-supported, owns the rights. Many of these stations have the Olympics because of legislation, and many aren't allowed to sell advertising to recoup their share of the rights fees. Note that Europe's cheap ride may be ending soon, as the IOC is increasingly extracting more rights fees from broadcasters across the Atlantic.
The IOC is willing to cash NBC's checks without putting any restrictions on how the network handles its Games simply because it needs American ad and sponsorship money. It's the modern Golden Rule: the Peacock Network has the gold and, therefore, it makes the rules. As this is the United States, and silly broadcasting regulations like "protected events" legislation are unheard of, the Olympic rights holder can put whatever it wants on TV whenever it wants to. (Running marquee events for the first time in the middle of the night? Wait, I probably shouldn't given them that idea.) If it wants to treat the East and West Coast differently, that's its prerogative, as silly as it seems in the Information Age.
However, that doesn't mean there is not room for discussion, compromise, and creative thinking, which all seem to be missing from NBC's approach.
Yes, it's true that Americans are most certainly watching in record numbers for a variety of reasons (plenty of U.S. medal hopes, the Games are taking place in a relatively familiar locale, it's awfully hot out in most places). The ratings are even topping numbers for Beijing coverage that featured (gasp) live showcase events, creatively scheduled by the hosts. However, to say this is an excellent reason for keeping the current broadcasting model in place is a logically suspect argument.
In a country built by risk taking and imagination, it's as if NBC feels that changing its approach to broadcasting events on television in anyway will result in a disaster approaching the level of 1992's Olympic Triplecast, one of the greatest sports TV failures of all time. Yet, what is actually now in place -- the events being spread across NBC Universal's various networks and online -- is simply an expanded version of that very package. Sure, this 21st century approach doesn't create any new jobs in the call center industry to handle the flood (or lack thereof) of subscription requests or add any noticeable costs to monthly cable bills, but it also leaves the serious Olympics fan (like me, and most of the people I follow on Twitter) without a place to watch the big events as they happen. In the Triplecast world, you would have had the option to watch Ryan Lochte swim against Michael Phelps, though it came at what turned out to be a steep price. Back in 1992, that pay-per-view model flopped because there was no Internet or Twitter. It was far easier to ignore the news and tune in for primetime in your respective time zone, where you'd see the events amongst a heaping helping of packages and interviews.
Twenty years into the future, and things are very different. If you're like me -- stuck working during the week -- you better avoid the Internet at all cost until John Williams' Olympic theme signals the beginning of the primetime broadcast. During the weekend, when you might just be able to watch medals being handed out live during the morning or afternoon, you could elect to watch a team sport or a niche event like archery while keeping your computer out of sight. Or, you might decide head off to the mall or beach or the mountains, leaving your phone far away from your wandering eyes. You could go to all of those lengths, and still have the surprised ruined when you turn on the news (just to be sure that the world didn't undergo some unbelievable change when you busy avoiding Olympic results) moments before primetime begins.
Simply put, there has to be a better way.
Credit where it is due, NBC has rolled out a nice first effort at making nice with the plugged-in public. This weekend, it launched a Gold Zone channel, based on the NFL's ultra-popular Red Zone channel, which acts much like a throwback Olympic broadcast, with rapid shifts between venues to catch the most noteworthy action. The only flaw is that Gold Zone is, at the time of writing, an online-only option.
Now streaming, 30 Rock's answer for seemingly everything but the Opening Ceremonies, has been hit or miss so far. Tune into a handball or field hockey group match on your iPad and you can expect a smooth, buffer-free broadcast. But decide to flip on Gold Zone or swimming finals when the rest of connected America is, and you may fling your tablet through the nearest window thanks to the constant buffering and delays. Plus, "live" streaming, for me anyway, has been about a minute behind what I see on TV or Twitter. In other words, if NBC Universal added some more servers, an Internet broadcast would be a worthy solution, but in the meantime, I'll pass and watch on my big screen TV during primetime, even though I want to send a message that I don't approve of NBC's broadcasting practices.
The easy answer would be for NBC to make Gold Zone available on cable and satellite, like the standalone Basketball and Soccer channels that were rolled out a few days ago. However, you can be assured that the network will say that this proposal, if implemented, will kill its ratings. Sure, they may decline a bit, but given the numbers so far, that result might not damage the bottom line all that much. Why? The simple answer is that Olympic competition, much like the Super Bowl, draws in viewers who aren't serious sports fans like (probably) you and me. The casual fan is going to watch whether events are live. taped earlier in the day, or taped two weeks ago, particularly as summer TV isn't all that appetizing ... and the programs that are of high quality won't necessarily be ruined if it sits on the DVR for a few days.
In short, I'm highly confident that letting us more serious fans have our cake (watching the event live) and eat it too (watch it again during primetime simply because we're that into it) won't send your ratings tumbling to the ground, NBC. Yes, it's a only a hypothesis, but it's one worthy of a test.
Follow Mr. Dobbertean's Olympic thoughts at his personal Twitter account.