Outcry over tape-delayed Olympics ignores business of TV


There are some stories that aren’t quite as big as they sound from the amount of attention we give them online. And one of those is the story of social media outrage at NBC’s decision to tape-delay the Olympic opening ceremonies and other events. Equipped on Twitter with the hashtag #nbcfail, the social media blitz has produced a lot of entertaining tweets on the theme that NBC had, well, failed. They ranged from serious statements that the network had squandered the promise of modern media, like “In a wired world, tape delay ruins the possibility of global solidarity at one of the few moments that promise it” (Hugo Schwyzer), to snarky pronouncements like “NBC: Will Pearl Harbor be attacked? Find out in primetime!” (Will Bunch). There are even accusations that Twitter is trying to shut down some of the negative comments: the service suspended the account of journalist Guy Adams after he posted the (corporate, not private) email of the NBC executive in charge of Olympics coverage and advised his readers to complain about the network “pretending the Olympics haven’t started yet.”

Complaining is fun; I love it. (I also love being in a country where the opening ceremonies were carried live on TV, so I didn’t have to wait for Bob Costas to tell me what was going on.) But when we move from complaining to trying to make a serious point about the future of media, we’re on shakier ground. A number of people have argued that this was a bad business strategy on NBC’s part; new-media evangelists have argued, as BuzzMachine’s Jeff Jarvis told the Associated Press, that NBC wants to “hold on to old media strategies in a new media world, and that’s a mistake.” Well, for it to be a mistake, NBC would probably have to get less than great ratings. Instead, the network has gotten record-breaking TV ratings for its coverage, including the infamous tape-delayed opening.

Correlation doesn’t prove causation; you can’t prove that the ratings would not have been equally good or better with a more social-media-friendly plan. But at the very least, there’s no proof that ignoring or downplaying social media has been a problem for ratings. And the network’s stated strategy–that it needs to save some of the big events for prime time, because that’s when most people are watching–seems to have paid off. It pays off, in part, because major sporting events are the most valuable pieces of real estate in TV today; the Olympics and the Super Bowl are among the only things for which ratings go up, not down. Networks do need to wring as much advertising money out of these events as they can.

You could actually turn the new-media evangelists’ argument around and say that in a world of many media choices, networks need to do more–not less–to maximize the number of people watching TV in prime time. In the old media world of three channels, all they had to worry about was whether we might watch one of the other channels or, heaven forbid, read a book. Now, with so many options available to us, networks may need–from a business standpoint, I mean, not a moral one–to make it worth our while to forego those other options when they have something we really want. Most of the time, of course, TV networks don’t have something we must have; there’s almost no scripted program so important that we need to watch it as soon as possible, and sometimes we enjoy them more if we wait a while to watch them. But a big sports event? Those things are still incredibly valuable, and whatever gets the largest number of people watching them after 7 (when advertising rates are higher) might be worthwhile.

That’s debatable, of course, and as other forms of TV viewing become more common and more sophisticated, networks may have no choice but to give us everything we want at the moment it happens. (Either that, or do what they’ve done with baseball: pressure everyone into scheduling their events around whatever time is best for U.S. networks.) NBC and other networks are already operating on the assumption that streaming is going to become a much bigger part of viewership and revenue. But by the time that is fully in place, Twitter and Facebook may have gone the way of MySpace. Social media changes so much and so quickly, and represents such a limited slice of the audience, that it seems unlikely that NBC paid any price for the #nbcfail incident, any more than the #romneyshambles hashtag is going to make a huge dent in Romney’s poll numbers. (It’s possible that social media helps NBC more than it hurts, by increasing awareness of these major events – even the #nbcfail tweets increase awareness.) When choosing between a few people on Twitter and the 40 million U.S. viewers who tuned in for the tape-delayed opening, networks will always choose the latter. Well, most networks. Maybe not the CW.

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  1. The numbers were high because people were looking forward to it….mother country for a lot of them. Huge number of celebrities from the royals to Beckham to McCartney…..and in English.

    And Americans at least know SOME British history….so it’s recognizable to them.

    Therefore big potential audience….and NBC made a mess of it. So many of the audience members have now departed to online streaming….without the censorship and ‘tailoring’ of NBC.

    On a personal note….I always watch the opening and closing ceremonies…..but after Brian Williams little outburst on Friday night, I won’t ever be watching them on CTV again. That was digraceful.

    • On a personal note….I always watch the opening and closing ceremonies…..but after Brian Williams little outburst on Friday night, I won’t ever be watching them on CTV again.

      Yeah, that was weird wasn’t it? I’m not sure I’d put it at quite the level of “disgraceful” but it sure was mighty odd. My only explanation is that he’s still stinging from the unflattering British coverage of Vancouver, and therefore thinks that anything coming from the British media is worthy of disdain.

      • Well the Olympics is supposed to celebrate Life, and the human body and it’s abilities….and isn’t supposed to be political in any way. War is supposed to cease for those two weeks…..and yet here they want to drag another grudge into it. All that will do is create tit for tat.

        A memorial was held in the athletes village for fellow athletes as a reminder of Olympic ideals….and that’s where it should remain.

        And the nerve! Who does he think he is? Some hopped-up sports caster from Canada telling an international body… the IOC… what to do and how to run things.

        He should stick to sports, or get canned.

  2. Isn’t the tape delay of the Opening Ceremonies a little different than the tape delay of live sporting events?

    Why tune in at 8:00 to see how Michael Phelps did in his latest race when you’ve already known for several hours that he came in fourth? Watching the Olympics on CTV, compared to NBC, always makes me feel like I’m living in the future. Just from watching CTV I know how all the Americans did in every event HOURS before people watching T.V. in the States do.

    NBC also really needs to get their sports people and their news people on the same page if this is how they want to run things. There have been many stories written about the news (on NBC) broadcasting the results of competitions hours before anyone in the U.S. has had an opportunity to watch said competitions on television. At the very least the anchors on the 6:00 news ought to give their audience a “spoiler alert” when they’re about to give out the results of competitions that won’t be broadcast on NBC for another 2 hours.

    • But those are different (heck, opposite) forces tugging here.

      People complaining about lack of live coverage are the ones that don’t care about watching it in prime time and wouldn’t care if the news spoiled it.

      People that complained last time around about the news spoiling the sporting results are exactly the ones that can’t watch things live.

      Imagine the Twitter snark when Brian Williams (the US one) comes on and tells you to cover your ears at the start of a newscast literally right after NBC shows an event.

      • People complaining about lack of live coverage are the ones that don’t care about watching it in prime time and wouldn’t care if the news spoiled it.

        But, if it’s carried live, then talking about it AFTER it’s been broadcast isn’t spoiling it. Sure, people wouldn’t care about the news reporting the result of the event after it happened if they had an opportunity to watch it while it was happening, because that’s not a spoiler. The issue isn’t whether or not the t.v. news reports on the result of the event after it happens, the issue is the t.v. news reporting the result of the event before people are even given the opportunity to watch it on t.v.

        Imagine the Twitter snark when Brian Williams (the US one) comes on and tells you to cover your ears at the start of a newscast literally right after NBC shows an event.

        Again though, it wouldn’t make any sense for Williams to say that in that context. Announcing the results of a sporting event that you just finished showing isn’t the same thing as announcing the results of a sporting event that you haven’t shown yet. I don’t see any need to be concerned about spoiling a RECAP of an event being shown at a later time, the issue Williams has to deal with is spoiling an event that his television audience hasn’t had an opportunity to see yet.

        ETA: I guess that was a long-winded way of saying: If you choose of your own accord, or are forced by reasons beyond NBC’s control (like your work schedule) to wait until the prime time broadcast to watch a sporting event on T.V., then avoiding spoilers before the re-broadcast is YOUR responsibility. However, if NBC only gives you the option to watch the event on T.V. in prime time then they have to take some responsibility for not spoiling the event for eventual viewers on themselves.

        I don’t expect a network to avoid spoiling the results of a game that I PVR to watch at 8:00, that’s on me. If the network itself is not going to broadcast the game until 8:00 though, then the least they can do is try not to ruin it for me.

  3. The tweet I really liked was “If NBC ran the Weather Channel they’d give us the forecast for last Thursday, right after these words from our sponsors”.

  4. I love the Olympics, always have. I get that the time delay is a problem. But for NBC to point to the ratings as proof positive that we’re OK with the coverage is ridiculous. We watched the network coverage because most of us don’t have a choice. Yes, I suppose some people have access to the BBC or to CBC to watch unedited broadcasts, or can find the livestream and monitor that, but most of us are beholden to NBC coverage. Most of us don’t want to know who won so there’s some a semblance of suspense in watching an event more than 8 hours old (and that’s pretty tricky to do, since the spoilers come from everywhere before you can cover your ears). But a monopoly is a monopoly, so NBC should not be so arrogant to think it’s because we love what they’re doing: it’s pretty much the only game in town. re #NBCFAILS giving them more attention: that comes from the “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” school of thought. NBC can put a smiley face on it, but they’ve got another 14 days to listen, and get better.

    • I should say, I don’t think the ratings are proof that people are okay with the coverage. We’ll accept a lot of stuff we don’t really like if we don’t have a choice. (If we really want something, we’ll pay inflated prices; we’ll drive long distances; we’ll do all kinds of inconvenient things – that just proves we like the product, not the way it’s delivered to us.) What I question is the idea that the network made a bad business decision by forcing people to wait until prime time. Sometimes what’s good for business is really irritating for the customers, especially in a business like TV where most of the money comes from the advertisers, not the viewers.

      • Aren’t eyeballs eyeballs though?

        If X people watch the event live, and Y people wait until they’re home from picnicking in the nice weather, doesn’t holding it exclusively for prime time only make sense if the Z people watching it when NBC forces them to is bigger than X+Y? Aren’t most of those people who are going to wait until prime time going to wait until prime time regardless? To my mind, NBC’s strategy means they’re losing the eyeballs of people who don’t want to watch an event that ended hours ago, but what eyeballs are they gaining exactly???

        And, perhaps some people won’t like this notion, but I’ve always thought that the Canadian broadcasters (and not just the CBC, but the Rogers/Bell/CTV/TSN/Sportsnet mega conglomerate too) have treated Olympic coverage as somewhat of a public service in addition to being good business. Sure, it’s a business, and a lucrative one, but I’ve always liked that the Canadian broadcasters seem to keep in mind a bit more of the (dare I say patriotic) notion of bringing the country together for a couple of weeks and not just money, money, money.

        • Oh I agree, Canada broadcasters specially the CBC have been outstanding during Olympics and most sports events.

  5. Question: Does any other national Olympic broadcaster treat Olympic broadcasting the way that NBC does?

    It’s worth keeping in mind that this is a long-standing complaint with NBC coverage going back several Olympiad. It’s not like this is just coming up now. And I know plenty of Americans in the border states who watch the Olympics on the Canadian feed for precisely this reason, and many with access to good cable packages are watching on BBC too.

    Would there be any way to track how many American households are watching Olympics events live on CTV, or BBC?

  6. As a largely unrelated aside, while it can get a bit confusing, as an Olympics junky I have to say that I really like the variety that the consortium is able to handle with their multiple networks. As someone with cable, it’s nice to have live swimming on CTV, while live boxing airs on TSN and live gymnastics airs on Sportsnet.

    And, while I haven’t seen them use this ability yet, and they likely won’t (plus, it would only be useful to someone with a sports package on their cable) I find it rather cool that, in theory, the broadcasters could air 8 different live Olympic events simultaneously without even using CTV Newsnet (5 Sportsnet channels, 2 TSN channels and CTV). I also appreciated having my sports channels saturated with Olympics coverage, but still being able to check in on the Jays game.

  7. I agree with pretty much everything you write here, and expand on your analysis in this post.