NBC's coverage of games draws both cheers and jeers
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The XXX Olympiad ended amid the usual festivities marking such occasions: bright lights, pop music, hugs, kisses, exchanges of email addresses and "see you four years from now in Rio."
Consistency is comforting, and for many longtime viewers of the Olympics, there's nothing better than sitting down in front of the TV every night for two weeks and watching the world's greatest athletes compete.
Or is there? NBC's presentation of the event, with more than 5,000 hours available through various broadcast networks as well as online streaming, has drawn praise and scorn from viewers.
Dawn Metrisin is a former Pittsburgher now living in San Diego, so her time delay on the Olympics is particularly daunting. She made every effort to avoid learning the results during the day, but quickly became "sick of being on a computer blackout" and wished news outlets had held back results from the Olympic Games.
At the same time, she -- and apparently many others -- questions why a sporting event would not be aired live: "The Super Bowl is live. Baseball games are live. Hockey is live. The Tour de France is live and it's in Europe, so why [is] the biggest event that occurs every four years any different?"
It all comes down to fiscal reality, and to that end, NBC appears to have done the best it could.
NBC, which paid more than $1 billion for the broadcast rights, has enjoyed record nightly ratings. The network's "storytelling" approach crushed the competition on a daily basis, and is on track to break the 2008 Beijing broadcast audience of 214.5 million viewers.
A recent Pew Research Center poll showed 76 percent of viewers surveyed gave high marks to NBC. Twenty-nine percent of those watching during the first week of the games deemed coverage "excellent" and 47 percent called it "good."
Those watching online and getting social media updates via the network's Twitter feeds gave it similarly high marks.
NBC might actually make money on these games, something once viewed as unlikely. From a business standpoint, it's all good.
How, then, to account for the sharp outpouring of complaints from viewers, upset that NBC was "saving" all the best events for prime time? That dragging out pre-packaged events was a disservice to sports fans?
Days into the London competition, two camps of viewers emerged.
The first was content to watch NBC's traditional prime-time coverage of tape-delayed results sprinkled amid the kind of up-close-and-personal features pioneered by former ABC Olympics producer Roone Arledge.
The second, much smaller camp was all about the thrill of watching it live on one of the many smaller NBC networks. The big-draw sports -- such as swimming, gymnastics and track -- could be found, live, online.
This sparked debate over Olympics spoilers, and whether traditional news websites should run photos of Gabby Douglas or Michael Phelps, smiling with their gold medals, many hours before NBC broadcast the competition.
Locally, the three television stations were light on reporting results. But when they did, there were announcements of spoilers dead ahead.
The Twitter hashtag, #NBCFail, has been trending because of everything from too much beach volleyball coverage to too little women's soccer.
"It's not that these rants didn't happen 10, 12, 14, 16 years ago," said WPXI vice president and general manager Ray Carter. "They've been happening forever; it's just that they are quicker to communicate, and the platform is more significant."
These have been touted as the first "digital" Olympics, the dawning of an era when social media such as Facebook and Twitter -- and live streaming on laptops, tablets and mobile devices -- were going to revolutionize the way Americans watched.
But for now, the tried-and-true revolves around traditional broadcast advertising, and NBC's decision to cover the games, experts say, is just sound business.
Dick Ebersol, former chair of NBC Sports and executive producer on numerous summer Olympics, is in London serving as an adviser to the network. He told writer Joe Posnanski of the online "Joe Blog" and the USA Today Sports Media Group that such criticisms are unwarranted.
"People talk about how we should treat this like sports? You know, we're getting an 18 rating some nights. Do you know what rating we would get if this was not under the banner of the Olympics? We'd be lucky to get a 1 rating for some of these sports."
"This is our business model," he continued. "The newspaper people have their own business model. We're in the television business. We're here to make great television."
Jane Hall, a professor in American University's School of Communication, said NBC is "doing a good job of getting ratings, and they can afford to take the hit from people who still want it live." As a journalist, Ms. Hall covered network television for more than 20 years, including nine at the Los Angeles Times.
"I think it would be hard to argue that coverage hasn't looked good, but it has been somewhat of a cheat ... as a person who likes live coverage, and as a journalist, it does seem somewhat forced, to pretend, in a way, that you don't already know the outcome.
"But it's a business decision."
Mr. Carter of WPXI sees it as common sense: "Why on earth would a network pay that much and then air them when the fewest people are available [to watch]?"
Validation of great ratings is of little comfort to viewers such as Beth Schmidt of Overbrook. On her blog last week, she described NBC's attitude as "kind of like saying people love rush hour traffic because they sit in it every day. Yep, we're stuck with NBC coverage, so I'm watching it."
The BBC took a different approach to the games, but of course, the high-profile events were live in the prime viewing window there. Through its "Red Button" service, viewers could toggle between 24 live feeds over 2,500 hours.
Roger Mosey, who directed the network's coverage, told The New York Times, "We wanted to give people every venue, from first thing in the morning to last thing at night."
The British audience wants live broadcasts whenever possible, which is why the BBC showed the opening ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Olympics in real time, the middle of the afternoon in London.
"We respect what NBC is doing, but the BBC would have been absolutely killed if it had time-shifted [the event to prime time]," Mr. Mosey said.
The BBC business model, however, allows greater freedom: It is publicly funded and not dependent on ad revenues, like the American networks.
In two years, NBC will broadcast the winter Olympics from Sochi, Russia, which is eight hours ahead of the Pittsburgh market. Two years after that, in Rio de Janeiro, the difference is only one hour ahead.
Throughout the Olympics, TiVo has been using a sampling service of 350,000 viewers to pinpoint the biggest moments in each night's broadcasts. The results were not surprising: generally the high points were the wins and losses of popular American athletes.
The jump in technology each year has been staggering, with more viewers watching big events on mobile screens. Generations being raised to watch TV content not actually on a television might well someday demand a break from the old business broadcast model.
But, experts say, not just yet.
"I think we have seen NBC not only having streaming not taking away from the broadcast, but [they've] had the highest ratings to date," said Tara Maitra, TiVo senior vice president and general manager of content and media sales.
"If anything, it just supports the notion that 'TV everywhere' and alternative sources only bolster viewing and are not taking away from it."
"This is one of the last great events tailored for broadcast television," said Paul Gluck, an associate professor with Temple University's School of Communications and Theater and a former television news director. "There is spectacle here that does not work on an iPhone."
First Published August 13, 2012 12:00 am