#nbcfail Failed to See the Bigger Olympics Picture

Aug 14, 2012

One of the oddest items I’ve read lately about NBC’s coverage of the Summer Olympics was this sentence from SportsGrid.com: “The numbers [meaning ratings] are working in [NBC’s] favor, even if public opinion is not.”

It’s nonsensical. The loudest shouting of public opinion, with regards to TV, is measured by a program’s ratings.

And by that measure, NBC’s coverage of the Games in London was an overwhelming success. Just looking at prime time, the London Olympics averaged 31.1 million viewers, according to TVByTheNumbers, making it the most-watched non-U.S. Summer Games in 36 years. That figure topped the Beijing Games four year ago by 12% and the Athens Olympics, in 2004, by 26%.

Those ratings represent a huge win for NBC and its entire Olympics team. Kudos especially to NBC’s Olympics guru Dick Ebersol, who’s been the architect of NBC’s Olympics coverage for years — and whose assistance in London was his swan song from the network — and to Ebersol’s successor as NBC Sports chairman, Mark Lazarus.

A lot of the criticism of NBC’s Olympics coverage came from Twitter and #nbcfail. According to a Storify.com examination of #nbcfail, here are the top 8 ways NBC blew its coverage (starting with the 8th reason and leading up to the No. 1 reason):

Top Eight Ways NBC Blew Its Coverage of the Olympics, According to #nbcfail

8. Requesting Twitter "discipline" a vocal critic

7. Condescending to critics

6. Cutting an Opening Ceremony tribute to terrorism victims for … Ryan Seacrest

5. Requiring a cable subscription to view online

4. Stupid commentary

3. Failing at geography … and social studies … and …

2. Cutting content for commercials

1. Tape-delaying what the rest of the world watched live

Most of these are rather minor infractions. Regarding NBC’s attempt to “discipline” a vocal critic, NBC is guilty as charged. Stupid to try to do this, but media companies are surprisingly thin-skinned.

NBC is condescending to critics. Critics can also be surprisingly thin-skinned.

Cutting part of the Opening Ceremony to go to Ryan Seacrest was an editorial decision that one can certainly argue about.

Requiring a cable subscription to view online was a business decision. Given the millions NBC paid for the rights to these Games, it was NBC’s decision to make.

Stupid commentary. Well, when you have practically non-stop coverage for two solid weeks of sporting events, it’s a given that some of it will be riddled with clichés and stupid remarks. None was more stupid than announcer Bob Fitzgerald’s unfortunate foot-in-mouth comment identifying Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg (a character Eisenberg played in the movie “The Social Network”). At the same time, it was a pretty funny, entertaining gaffe.

The mispronunciation of names and places is almost a given at an international event such as the Olympics. From where I sat, I thought there was a lot less of this than in past Olympics.

The No. 1 and No. 2 complaints — the fact that most of what we watched was tape-delayed and not commercial free — really go to the crux of how NBC presents the Olympics. 

Instead of my defending NBC, Dick Ebersol is far more eloquent in explaining NBC’s Olympics coverage philosophy than I am. Here’s Ebersol doing just that last week in a discussion with SportsOnEarth blogger Joe Posnanski (I suggest you click on the link and read the entire piece. This is just an excerpt):

“Ebersol, in what he says will be his only interview at these Games, tells me that [the] critics have it all wrong. The Olympics, he believes, are not to be treated like other sports. ‘That’s just nonsense,’ he says. ‘The Olympics are the biggest family television there is. The Olympics are one of the last events where a whole family can gather around a television set and spend the night together. 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. The newspaper people have their own business model. We’re in the television business. We’re here to make great television.’ ”

Ebersol continues: “The key is storytelling. That’s by far the most important part of the Olympics. It’s the most important part of television. It’s not enough just to show the Games. We have to give people a reason to care, a reason to be invested.

“The other day when [Dominican 400-meter hurdler] Felix Sanchez won the gold medal we had told his story [about his grandmother dying on the day he was trying to qualify in Beijing]. We had been with him throughout. People knew him. So when he broke down on the stand, people cried with him. It would not have meant as much as a simple sports story.”

As for the tape-delay controversy, Ebersol notes that for the Olympics four years ago in Beijing he negotiated for the swimming finals to be held in the morning, Beijing time, so they could be shown live, in prime time, on U.S. TV. And this was when Michael Phelps was going for his eight gold medals.

In London, on the other hand, all of the swimming finals that were shown in prime time were on a tape-delay basis. And, Posnanski writes, the swimming shown tape-delayed from London “beat the ratings for Beijing on every single one of the first seven days.”

Ebersol tells Posnanski that in survey after survey only a small percentage of viewers say they want to watch Olympics contests live, as opposed to “after dinner.” And, as Ebersol notes, for the most part NBC did allow for live viewing online.

Here’s Ebersol’s ultimate defense of how NBC presents the Olympics, as he told Posnanski: “This year, really for the first time, I have had some time to watch the host country’s television. I’ve been watching the BBC, which is one of the most respected entities in the world, right? Well, they will cut away from races to show a British athlete who is finishing fifth. They openly root for their athletes on the air. It’s a different approach, but we have never done that. Nobody ever uses the word ‘we’ in our coverage, and if they did they wouldn’t last long.

“I believe our coverage is different from anyone else’s in the world. We do as many features on foreign athletes as American athletes. We tell the best stories, wherever we can find them. There’s a great tradition in American television of professionalism in coverage, and I believe we live up to that tradition.”

9 Comments

  1. Ebersol’s comment is utterly rubbish. If he was watching the main channels either BBC1, BBC2 or BBC3 with which then he might have a valid point, but he doesn’t. The BBC showed almost every event to it’s completion. If they did cut away it was due to the race finishing while the high jump was still going on. However with the additional 24 SD and HD channels almost EVERY event was completely and utterly covered to completion with no cut aways. In addition to this all of this was simulcast streamed on the internet live with instant replay functionality. All of this comes at a fraction of the cost of what US viewers pay for their cable packages as opposed to our license fee.
    If you believe Ebersol is right please tell me the time and the date of the cut away, I’ll be able to check on the bbc sport website right now to see when it happened.

  2. I agree that NBC did a good job with their coverage. Unlike those on Twitter, I have to work for a living. I could not watch the events live, so I appreciated having them “summed up” in prime time for me.

  3. Americans have voted with their eyeballs and NBC has won in a landslide. A very vocal minority of complainers refuse to admit they are wrong. They refuse to admit that NBC really did an excellent job and most American’s loved NBC’s coverage. If the NBC coverage was so bad, they would not have had the HUGE number of viewers they had.

  4. Americans watch everything on DVR-Delay now anyway. We are used to having some information and still enjoying the program. I watched many events on the computer live and that was great. I saw what I wanted live and the coverage was awesome. The 15-second ad spots online were managed really well and didn’t interfere with the events. NBC should get huge credit for that! And for allowing us to watch those events on line. I think that the few complaints are mostly from whiners and I agree that the “up-close-and-personal” (actually developed by Roone Arledge) make it great theater.

  5. Thanks for noticing that NBC’s coverage is not about satisfying whiny “I want everything NOW (and for free!)” bloggers and critics, but about delivering eyeballs to advertisers, which is precisely what they did.

  6. The BBC tele tax is currently £145.50 (approximately US $228) per year per color TV.
    Cable packages are typically more expensive than that but viewers aren’t paying $19/month per TV just to watch a handful of BBC channels.

  7. There are three truths about the Olympics:
    1) The traffic in the host city is never as bad as is feared;
    2) There are always a lot of empty VIP seats at the opening rounds of every event;and
    3) No one likes NBC’s coverage except the viewers.

  8. Saying NBC’s coverage was wonderful because the ratings were high is like saying McDonald’s serves great food because their sales are so high.
    Since there was no option in the US but to watch NBC for the games (except for those hackerish enough to figure out how to get the BBC working on their sets), the ratings argument is completely worthless. I hated NBC’s coverage — well some of it, anyway — yet I watched every single night. I haven’t watched that much network TV in a long time…
    Sorry, Chuck: viewership does NOT equal satisfaction. The #NBCfail meme shows that I’m not alone…

  9. As a UK resident, and someone who pays her TV licence every month, I would just like to clarify that you do not need a TV licence per TV. You can have as many TVs as you like, you just pay for one TV licence. Personally, I think it is worth every penny as we get great programming with no adverts as well as multiple radio stations covering everything from classical music to pop music to live sport (again all commercial free) and, of course, all the online services.

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