RIO DE JANEIRO — I would tell you what happened on the opening day of the Olympics, but as a woman, I’m not really into results; I’m more about the journey. I would give you the latest on French vaulter Samir Ait Said’s horrifically broken leg, or tell you about the craziest bike race finish you’ve ever seen, but those aren’t things a woman particularly wants to know, according to NBC executives. So you can blame me for hijacking your viewing experience.
Women don’t watch the Olympics for the live results; they watch it for the narrative. Or that’s the reasoning of NBC, anyway. As the network’s chief marketing officer John Miller explained:
“The people who watch the Olympics are not particularly sports fans,” he told Philly.com recently. “More women watch the games than men, and for the women, they’re less interested in the result and more interested in the journey. It’s sort of like the ultimate reality show and miniseries wrapped into one.”
NBC has been advancing this paperback romance novel approach for many years now, tape-delaying and heavily packaging the Olympics with soft-focus stories, often very successfully. To be fair, there are some very nice, smart execs at the network, and many of the packaged pieces are terrific, as is the live coverage, when it happens. And it’s not inherently sexist for them to say that women have some different viewing habits and interests than men. Women behave very differently as consumers: They read more than men, for example, and are more likely to buy fiction.
But the overnight rating for NBC’s hour-delayed telecast of the Opening Ceremonies in Rio was a 16.5, the lowest for a Summer Games since 1992. The reasons for this aren’t entirely clear yet, but it’s a good guess that the network patronized and frustrated a huge segment of its audience, men and women alike, and that begs for closer examination.
If we’re lucky, the Rio Games finally will persuade NBC execs their Harlequin strategy is outdated. One major problem with the NBC approach is that it’s based on viewer “studies,” and it’s more than a little self-selecting: If you produce a variety show, you’re going to attract variety show viewers. If you produce a sports telecast, you’ll attract sports viewers.
This is where NBC’s real offense lies. It’s not so much that it insults the audience — but it sure does insult Olympic athletes, especially female athletes. The Olympics is the most prominent competition in the world and 53 percent of Team USA is female, which means American women likely will bring in more medals than American men. Yet they will be presented in packaging aimed at a Ladies’ Home Journal crowd. Exactly how does that grow a hardcore audience for women’s sports, or a year-in, year-out base for other Olympic sports, for that matter?
NBC doesn’t necessarily have a social responsibility to cover female Olympians as the real athletes they are. But there’s no question the current setup treats them as diminutives, even while celebrating their “stories.” And this may very well turn off traditional sports viewers.
Even if you buy NBC’s argument that the majority of the viewing public prefers edited, packaged programming over the vagaries of live sports competition, then ask yourself this question: Why aren’t NFL football telecasts tape delayed and packaged? Why don’t the networks delay and collapse the games in favor of sugary features showing childhood films of the Manning brothers on a swing set instead of wasting viewers’ time with a penalty-filled second quarter?
The fact is, no network would do that. Why? Because the networks assign a dignity and an import to a live NFL game that they don’t to women’s gymnastics.
The suspicion here is that something else may be at work, also. NBC has sold $1.2 billion in advertising. At least some of the “story” packaging is calculated to serve up time slots to those advertisers.
You know what all Americans dislike? So many commercials it ruins the story. That hacks any viewer off, whether they’re watching a playoff game or a miniseries. And NBC hit its viewers with a barrage of eight commercials in the first 65 minutes. That’s one every eight minutes.
The danger for NBC is that if its ratings continue to plunge, it might have to return some of the ad money, which is contingent on delivering a certain size of audience. But there is a larger danger, too, in not growing its audience over the long term.
Former world class tennis player Pam Shriver tried to watch the Opening Ceremonies from her home on the West Coast with her three kids. It’s not Shriver herself NBC should be concerned about, but her offspring. She tweeted her frustration: “Stinks in this day & age to be in Los Angeles & not be able to watch LIVE the Opening Ceremony of the 31st Olympiad with most of world.”
Later she tweeted, “Ok so one by one my 3 kids are falling asleep in LA.. Even before #TeamUSA walks into stadium. Tough to inspire next generation when so late.”
NBC is living in the past with its heavy packaging and commercial interruptions. Viewer patience is short, and the more passionate sports audiences who want the women’s soccer or cycling or gymnastics have live-streaming options that don’t require headachy authentication. Less devoted viewers have a world of alternate uninterrupted entertainment at their disposal: social gaming, YouTube, Vevo, movie websites.
If NBC wants to attract and retain Olympic viewers, it better up its game and stop making people so frustrated and impatient.