Cutting NBC some slack

If you’ve spent any time at all on Twitter during the past week, you’ve no doubt seen the hashtag #NBCfail.  It’s become very fashionable to bash NBC for substandard coverage of the Olympics, and not just because Twitter users are a bunch of grumpy, impossible-to-please curmudgeons who love to jump on bandwagons (although that’s not an untrue statement, so it appears).

To be clear, I’m not defending NBC’s coverage as a whole – I’ve found the primetime coverage middling-to-poor myself.  For starters, much of the talking-head commentary has been atrocious. (This isn’t limited to NBC proper, either – an MSNBC anchor yesterday referred to an equestrian dressage event as “pretty horses doing pretty things”.  Seriously.)  Untimely commercial breaks have also been plentiful, and I’d like a little more variety than the same three damn sports NBC has shown over and over and over again, making me wish I never again hear the name Michael Phelps in my lifetime.  Some of the programming decisions have been real head-scratchers – you have 32 sports to choose from and you’re wasting time interviewing snowboarding champion Shaun White, who has absolutely nothing to do with the Summer Olympics?   Most of this is indefensible.

What seems to be the major cause of the firestorm, however, is defensible: NBC’s decision to tape-delay everything and obfuscate the results until the events are aired.

NBC isn’t broadcasting the Olympic Games as a fulfillment of civic duty.  This is America, and in America everything comes down to money, of which NBC spent almost $1.2 billion for the rights to broadcast the London Games.  That’s more than the GDP of several smaller competing nations combined, and they need to make as much of that back as possible.

So how does one generate $1.2 billion in two weeks?  You aren’t holding a bake sale, that’s for sure.  You know what else won’t work?  Ignoring primetime in favor of showing everything live.  That’s laughable.

The only way NBC can hope to make that kind of scratch is by maximizing primetime advertising dollars, but because there are exactly zero live events occurring in London while NBC is on the air from 8PM-12AM Eastern time, the Peacock finds itself in a bit of a pickle.  In order to drive the most eyeballs to its coverage (and thus ensure the highest ad rates), NBC is doing three things that have somewhat ironically resulted in infuriating some viewers: they’re only showing only the biggest events like swimming, beach volleyball, gymnastics, and starting last night, track and field; everything is tape-delayed; and they’re hiding the pre-determined outcome to maintain a level of suspense.

(None of this – save for this year’s location – is unique, by the way.  NBC has done all of this before.  But now we have Twitter, so the groaning is louder.)

Since NBC needs to show something during the primetime hours, and it’s furthermore physically impossible for NBC to show live events from London in primetime, I won’t bother defending the decision to tape-delay.  It should be obvious that they have to do it. (Unless NBC has developed the ability to distort time and space. In which case – stop holding out, you jerks.)

The next complaint is that said obfuscation is insulting to the intelligence of its viewers.  I don’t agree.  I don’t want to know the results of something I haven’t watched yet.  Would you still watch the women’s gymnastics individual all-around final if NBC informed you who the medalists were right before airing the event?  “Gabby Douglas won the gold medal for the United States, here’s how it unfolded”?   Would it still be as compelling or exciting? 

(Full disclosure: I did watch, knowing that Douglas won beforehand.  But I’m not normal.  Also, because I knew the result, it was neither exciting nor compelling.)

It’s true that you don’t need NBC to ruin it for you, that you could just as easily look up the results by yourself prior to watching. Or you could – you know – choose not to do that if you’re planning to watch.  NBC shows a very limited amount of events in primetime, and it shouldn’t be difficult to figure out which ones will be on so as to avoid spoilers.

Avoiding spoilers is something we should be used to by now thanks to the DVR, which exists in part because we crave drama and suspense in sports so much.  More and more of us are embracing it.  Case in point: I’m a golf nut, but being a parent, watching golf for six hours on a Sunday isn’t realistic anymore.  For years, I’ve recorded the majors and entered the Cone of Silence until I’m done watching sometime Monday night.  I’ve watched this year’s Masters, US Open, and Open Championship doing exactly this.  Last year’s PGA Championship, however, still sits on my DVR unwatched because I accidentally found out Keegan Bradley won before I could watch.  (Can’t bring myself to delete it, though.  Yet.  Maybe I’ll find time to watch it before next weekend’s PGA Championship.)  

If we’ll go through all of that to preserve the drama and suspense for ourselves, why are we criticizing NBC for attempting to do the same thing?

This brings me to my biggest complaint: the lack of variety, and even that is understandable. 

Can you imagine the financial disaster that would occur if NBC decided to show judo or archery in primetime and nobody watched?  What about a sport that America not only doesn’t care about but doesn’t even field a team in, like handball (an awesome sport, by the way – more on that later)?  I’d rather watch fencing or canoeing for a change instead of NBC’s eleventh straight hour of swimming, but it comes back to the money – I understand why NBC does what it does. 

Sports junkies like you and me have to understand that we’re not NBC’s target audience for primetime.  We’re watching anyways – they’re not worried about attracting us.  Suzie Soccermom, on the other hand, is fine with NBC’s strategy of tape-delayed obfuscation for only the biggest events, as evidenced by ratings that are so strong NBC now expects to break even on the Games after previously expecting to lose money. There’s a whole lot more Suzie Soccermoms than sports junkies out there, you see, so while it may not be the right choice for some of us, financially it’s been the right choice for NBC. 

The problem is that NBC’s primetime coverage becomes little more than a wrap-up show for the major events.  That’s fine if you don’t depend on it for your primary Olympics experience.  If you are, you’re doing it wrong.

NBC’s daytime coverage, by contrast, features a healthy portion of live events during the day on both the main network as well as the NBC Sports Network, Bravo, MSNBC, and CNBC. But the real party, and the future of Olympics broadcasting, is on – where for the first time every single Olympic event is being broadcast live.  Yes, even pretty horses doing pretty things.  That’s what I like to call “progress”.

I’ve been watching the online video offerings as much as I can while at work this week (shh, don’t tell the boss – it’s on in the background while I’m doing actual work, OK?) and I’ve come away reasonably impressed.  There have been technical glitches here and there, but since I’m still basking in the glow of having absolutely everything available to me for the first time, I’ll give them a pass.  The HD video quality hasn’t disappointed me and the online listings page is reasonably well laid out.  The mouse becomes the ultimate remote control  – I can choose to watch a simulcast of the NBC Sports Network or MSNBC for general sports, tune in to CNBC’s boxing coverage or Bravo’s tennis coverage, or pick a more specific live stream (sans commentary, which is probably a good thing anyways, am I right?) for any event that happens to be occurring at that moment.   Furthermore, the feeds feature a bar at the top that alert you of US-centric breaking news (eg. “Serena Williams in gold medal match now”), with the ability to click through and switch to that feed. Choices! 

Although sitting around a computer to watch sports isn’t exactly ideal, I can always hook my laptop up to my TV through an HDMI cable if I so desire.  I’d have to get up and walk over to the laptop to change the live feed, but since I’m a child of the 80’s and we didn’t have remotes back then, I’m used to it.  Remember, online video delivery is comparatively in its infancy.  We’re getting there.

Being able to watching all sorts of stuff that NBC would never dare show in primetime has been a blast.  Handball is quickly becoming my new favorite sport – I can’t overstate how much I’m enjoying it.  Imagine a slightly more physical version of basketball with a ball that’s perhaps a third of the size, add soccer nets with a goalie, and you’re halfway there.  It’s similar enough to basketball that the US could probably dominate it if it cared to, but alas, the United States hasn’t sent a handball team to the Olympics since 1996 – and even that was only due to receiving an automatic berth as the host country.  In fact, since 1972 US teams – men and women combined – have only won eight handball games in international competition.    (But I digress.  You didn’t come here to read about handball.)

I have to prove I’m a cable or satellite subscriber to watch the online offerings, but I don’t think that’s unreasonable.  (Hey, about time I get my money’s worth out of that $100 I give DirecTV every month.)  Since there are no ads in the live streams (at least the ones I’ve been watching, anyway), I’d have to presume that NBC is getting money from DirecTV, Comcast, Time Warner, et. al. in order to make online video possible.  I’d also wager that NBC would get less from these carriers if they made all this online video free to non-subscribers as well.  This sucks for those cord-cutters who ditched cable, but I think it’s understandable.

So where does NBC go from here?  The Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 (nine hours ahead of Eastern time) will also present similar broadcast challenges, but Rio de Janeiro – the site of the 2016 Games – is NBC’s first real opportunity to demonstrate that it has learned lessons from the criticism it has received during the London Games. Rio is only two hours ahead of Eastern time, somewhat lessening the dependency on tape-delayed events, so it’ll be interesting to see if (and how) NBC takes advantage of that.  NBC’s current model is not forever sustainable, and it may be obsolete sooner than one might think.  Look at how much the landscape has changed in just the last four years: as social media continues to take hold, we are increasingly finding ourselves in an environment in which we need to know stuff, we need to know it now, and Big Media needs to learn how to better satisfy that.

Had NBC not overpaid (by most accounts) for the London Olympics, perhaps the Peacock’s decision-making wouldn’t be so blatantly money-first.  But NBC is making what I believe to be the best decision for itself in a tough (albeit somewhat self-imposed) situation – and fortunately for us, we don’t have to be dependent on what happens on the main network between the hours of 8pm and 12am.  Although it may not completely erase #NBCFail, I think NBC deserves at least a little credit for its online offerings.  Take advantage of them.