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London 2012: A Few Somewhat Scattered Thoughts On Olympic Scheduling And Programming

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 12:  A general view during the Closing Ceremony on Day 16 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 12, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 12: A general view during the Closing Ceremony on Day 16 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 12, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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It's now been three days since the flame was extinguished in London, and I can only hope that your own case of Olympic withdrawal has been a bit less irritating than mine. I must say that the NBC Sports Network's Return to London series and a full afternoon and evening of international soccer have served as my methadone during the early part of this week, along with researching and writing this post, which is a bit more random than I originally planned.

On second thought, maybe this entry isn't quite as random as I claim, considering how the idea for it entered my brain. On Saturday night, at the start of the second-to-last evening of its primetime coverage, NBC ran a long-form documentary on the British people's valiant fight against the Nazis in the first years of World War II. Certainly, the documentary was well done, the type of actual history lesson that's long disappeared from even American cable networks, which have joined their broadcast equivalents in looking for the quick ratings hit only pure speculation, conspiracy theories, and reality TV can deliver. But that's another topic for another forum.

Despite the quality of NBC's efforts, much of the social media world (of which I am a somewhat proud participant) collectively performed its best McKayla Maroney impersonation regarding the Peacock Network's programming decision or, conversely, the criticism of it. My thought at the time was, "It's the penultimate day of a very busy Olympics, surely there must be something, anything exciting or noteworthy that happened in a London venue that would fit well in the first hour of primetime." Then again, it wasn't the first time that NBC featured some sort of documentary in its primetime coverage, though only one with Michael Phelps actually related directly to the 2012 Games.

That got me thinking ... was there anything specific about the Games' schedule that makes it possible to fill just about an hour's worth of primetime coverage, on the final full day of competition no less, with a documentary? Also, what could be done with Olympic coverage that would allow NBC to run long features and earn (gasp) praise in the process?

See, I told you this would be a bit disjointed.

So, I decided to take a look at the schedules for London, Beijing, and Athens to see if there was a significant difference in how the most recent Olympics were scheduled, particularly as Closing Ceremonies approached. In short, the timeline has changed rather significantly since 2004, but the 2012 schedule wasn't all that different from 2008's. Additionally, there are some event-related considerations that led to NBC having some time to fill late in the Games.

  • The first week or so of the Games will always feature a slightly more crowded schedule than the second, thanks to the preliminary rounds of the team sports. The scheduling difference is even more pronounced now that the majority of these events have dropped classification games for squads eliminated after the group stage and quarterfinals -- with field hockey and water polo the notable exceptions.
  • The Olympic swim meet highlights the first week and the track competition is the showcase for the second, with at the most two days of overlap existing. There really isn't any way around this aspect of the schedule, particularly for countries that air these competitions faithfully, from the heats to the finals.
  • Taking a look at when medal finals were scheduled, by far the most, 32, were slated for the final Saturday, compared to 15 on the final day. This makes sense, considering there aren't any competitions in the late afternoon and early evening of Day 17, so everyone can prepare and get to Olympic Stadium to see the Games conclude. The next busiest day from a medal perspective was the second Saturday, which saw 25 sets of gold, silver, and bronze handed out.
  • Naturally, the second week of London 2012 was busier than the first in terms of medal events, as the final week (Sunday to Sunday) featured 164 deciders, with just 138 in week one (Saturday to Saturday).
  • A sizable percentage of sports were all wrapped up before the final Saturday and Sunday. London 2012 featured 23 sports in action over the opening weekend, 24 during the middle weekend, and 16 active over the final one. Those numbers are similar to Beijing 2008 (21 opening weekend, 24 middle weekend, 16 final weekend), but there was more late action in London and Beijing than at Athens 2004. Those Games saw just 13 sports in competition over the final two days (compared to 23 during the opening weekend and 25 in the middle two days).
  • Several notable events were completed after week 1, including tennis and quadrennial TV favorites badminton and fencing. Both target sports, archery and shooting, concluded by the time the final Tuesday rolled around, though there were venue issues in play. (Archery had to conclude so Lord's could be ready for the Test cricket match that starts Thursday morning.) Rowing also concluded early, though that was necessary because of the canoe/kayak regatta at the same venue. Judo and weightlifting also wrapped up quickly, again because of venue needs at the ExCeL.
  • Table tennis wrapped up before the closing weekend, as it was moved to earlier in the schedule compared to Beijing. So did the equestrian events, though that's another change made because of venue scheduling, as modern pentathlon -- which features an equestrian and combined event also hosted by Greenwich Park -- was moved to the final two days. Sailing and wrestling were also moved to later in the London 2012 scheduled.
  • While there were 15 sports NBC could have selected for primetime coverage on the final Saturday (excluding water polo, the only weekend event with the day off), the number is actually a bit lower than that. Sailing was one of the very few events that didn't receive much mention on any of NBC's varied platforms, presumably because it's the Olympics least TV friendly sport. Boxing, a traditional Olympic favorite, was relegated to CNBC, even for the the Saturday and Sunday finals. Finally, mountain biking, a discipline added in 1996 in part because it was seen as a potential TV draw, also was largely ignored. Take those three sports out and only 12 were actually available for primetime.

However, American Olympic broadcasting tradition really meant that just three sports of those 12 would make the cut for the final Saturday night broadcast -- track and field, diving, and volleyball. Even the rhythmic variety of gymnastics was destined for an afternoon broadcast window, undoubtedly because of the traditionally weak performance of Americans in the discipline. Those three sports aren't enough to build a four-hour broadcast around, even with commercials, so of course, NBC would be left needing to fill time.

Keep in mind, that thanks to the relative lack of a time difference between the U.S. and Brazil, you might actually see more medals handed out between 8 p.m. and midnight ET on the final night of competition in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. However, the chances of another documentary opening up the final Saturday night of coverage will increase again in Istanbul, Madrid, or Tokyo in 2020, unless NBC decides to radically revise its list of broadcast-able events.

That leads me to providing an answer for the question of what to do with those long-form features and documentaries, painstakingly prepared for broadcast during the Olympics, in the off chance coverage of the action in the venues ever trumps the reality TV aspect of American Olympic coverage. Well, what I'm proposing for Sochi in a year and a half is an Olympic primer -- an extra three hours or so of programming that would air on the night before the Opening Ceremony. This program would whet the appetite of the viewing public for Olympic competition with a mix of more in-depth pieces -- a look at the host country, its culture and its history. an exploration of the venues and what makes them unique, and, naturally, several pieces about the most compelling athletes who will be in competition over the next two weeks.

Of course, an American network would probably replay the individual pieces of this hypothetical program throughout the 17 days, making this plan not without its faults. Still, any additional Olympic programming, especially just before the Games begin, would not be a bad thing. Given how the Olympics sneak up on us all every couple of years, such an evening might just be an ideal way to get audiences excited even before the flame is lit.

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