NBC’s Olympic coverage criticized


From left, United States' Michael Phelps, Conor Dwyer, Ricky Berens and Ryan Lochte pose with their gold medals for the men's 4x200-meter freestyle relay swimming final at the Aquatics Center during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, England, on July 31. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)
July 31, 2012

The first three days of NBC’s London Games coverage clocked about 36 million viewers on average — the biggest crowd through the first weekend of any Summer Olympics in history.

And by “in history,” we mean since the 1960 Games in Rome, which was the first televised Olympics. Obviously, the Games have gone on a lot longer than that.

An average of about 41 million viewers in the United States watched the Opening Ceremonies. And Sunday’s NBC audience of 36 million is higher than any night from the 2008 Beijing, 2004 Athens or 2000 Sydney Games, the network reported.

Even with Monday’s prime-time Games coverage down by 5 percent from the corresponding night in Beijing four years back, NBC overall is well ahead of the game this time in terms of viewership.

(Regarding that Monday drop: Four years ago on the same night, NBC aired many events live, including a gold-medal race by swimmer Michael Phelps — always a big draw in the United States. On Monday, NBC’s prime-time coverage was all tape-delayed, including the disappointing showing by the U.S. men’s gymnastics team.)

But this time around, one of the more popular sports of the Summer Olympics — according to the media, anyway — has been The Trashing of NBC.

This sporting event — in which NBC is pilloried for failing to air popular Olympics competitions live, instead holding them to broadcast in prime time — has been going on for ages. Some years, this activity has been more popular than others.

But this sport has come into its own with the 2012 Games, which, as others have noted, marks the first year that competitors have been able to widely use Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites to score points on NBC. Ironically, it also marks the first year that NBC has made available to fans a live-stream of virtually every competition in the 16-day event (not including Opening Ceremonies day).

The Reporters Who Cover Television are among the sport’s most avid fans.

Time magazine’s TV critic, for instance, tweeted that “NBC tape delay coverage is like the airlines: its interest is in giving you the least satisfactory service you will still come back for.”

NBC’s Games exec producer Jim Bell responded: “You do know that all sports events are being streamed live right?” (NBC has been streaming all the competition live for die-hard enthusiasts, though it’s not archiving the streams until after that particular competition airs in prime time. In other words, viewers who want to watch it live can watch it via NBC’s app, so long as they are cable or satellite subscribers, after which they have to wait to see it broadcast on NBC in prime time.)

“I do, indeed! Have enjoyed it,” replied the TV critic, James Poniewozik, though he’d forgotten to include “enjoyed it” in his original tweet about NBC’s lousy service — darned that pesky 140-character limit!

But, Poniewozik added: “Apparently a lot of folks still prefer watching it on TV.”

You mean all those “people don’t watch television on their TVs anymore” reports are hooey?

Sadly for the critic and those like him, who would prefer to have all their Olympic events delivered live to their televisions — so old-school — NBC will air Games play for the foreseeable future in prime time, so the coverage keeps attracting record numbers of viewers. And record viewershp means NBC can charge big bucks for ads during coverage, in hopes of offsetting the billions of dollars it pays for broadcast rights. NBCUniversal agreed last summer to cough up $4.38 billion for the TV rights to the Games for 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2020.

The Trashing of NBC has really taken off with these Games, thanks in part to the Twitter hashtag #NBCFail — which, on the day of the Opening Ceremonies, had just 212 tweets.

It grew to 29,122 tweets by Monday afternoon, with many folks joining in to complain about NBC’s having somehow failed viewers by not providing live coverage of the London Games. That same day, 32 million people watched NBC’s Olympic coverage, in prime time.

The first #NBCFail tweet — from Steven Marx, the day before the Opening Ceremonies — went like this: “Interesting how NBC never mentions you need a cable/satellite subscription w/MSNBC/CNBC to view any coverage online. We’re [stuck]. #NBCFail”

And, by “we,” he means everyone who is not part of the 91 percent of the country’s TV homes who are cable/telephone/ satellite subscribers. Bet those cord-cutters are feeling pretty silly during these Olympics.

Unfortunately for all those who believe NBC is failing viewers by not airing live coverage of the Games, the United States is not actually the center of the universe, and not every nation that hosts the Games agrees to operate on United States East Coast time during the Games.

When the Summer Games are held in, say, Beijing — which is 12 hours ahead of United States East Coast time — The Trashing of NBC wanes in popularity. So long as NBC can throw its weight around and get the International Olympic Committee to hold events Americans love — women’s beach volleyball, women’s gymnastics and any event with the words “Michael” and “Phelps” in it — in the morning (for Beijing, that meant it was prime time in New York), NBC can broadcast those events live.

But when the Summer Games are held in, say, London — which, for the foreseeable future, is going to be five hours ahead of New York, timewise — NBC has a more problematic situation.

If NBC aired all Olympic events live, viewers in the United States would have to get up at 3:30 a.m. on the East Coast to watch women’s doubles badminton, and 5 a.m. to watch men’s 100-meter freestyle swimming, and call in sick to watch women’s team artistic gymnastics at 11:30 a.m. this week on Tuesday.

“People aren’t going to get up that early for 16 consecutive days, and people can’t watch that much [TV] at work,” acknowledged a scholar at a competing network.

For NBC to show live competition in prime time, the Olympics honchos would have to agree to stage competition from 1 to 4 a.m. London time. Minus such an agreement, NBC would be broadcasting coverage live in prime time while most competitors were sleeping. We have a name for that — it’s called “Big Brother.”

Broadcast the London Games live, and NBC’s ratings plunge, its ad revenue takes a nosedive — and we’re in for many more seasons of “Love in the Wild.”

To read previous columns by Lisa de Moraes and the latest from the Summer TV Press Tour, go to washingtonpost.com/tvblog.

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