Chuck Ross

What NBC Can Learn From the BBC — and Vice Versa — About Televising the Olympics. Observations From the Former GM of an NBC Affiliate

Aug 6, 2012

[Note: This guest blog entry is written by Bill Bauman. For many years Bauman was the GM of WESH, Hearst Television’s NBC affiliate serving Orlando, Fla. He retired five years ago. We received the following essay along with this email from Bill the other day: "Greetings from Scotland, where I am spending my summers since retiring.  I’ve had the chance to watch a lot of BBC Olympic coverage, and couldn’t resist putting pen to paper, or whatever the computer analogy to that is."]

By Bill Bauman

Watching the summer Olympics in Great Britain this year is a fascinating television experience. The BBC is using 14 of their digital channels to broadcast live coverage of virtually every event, all day (and night) long. And it is entirely commercial free. Not a single spot. No “I approved this message” messages. No local news anchors pimping their upcoming breaking news. No weather cut-ins. No hyped promos for upcoming shows. Just 14 live streams of sports, on 14 channels.

The BBC is a UK government entity. The citizens of Great Britain own it, although it is managed independently. Every TV household pays an annual “license fee” of 145 pounds, or 226 dollars, to the BBC. This helps to generate about 775 million pounds ($1.2 billion) in revenue to “The Beeb.” The license fee is just a small part of the BBC revenue. Most comes from program sales, government grants, and other business income. It is a nice bit of cash flow largely unhampered by economic conditions or elections.

In return for this unfettered revenue, UK viewers get a multitude of BBC TV channels, all commercial free, plus multiple radio channels and websites that stream programs. The Beeb will argue that their viewers get a higher quality of programming than any of their competitors can provide. This includes highly produced (expensive) dramas, great sports coverage, solid documentaries and the BBC world news service, including the outstanding 24/7 BBC News Channel. Sky television is the big competitor, and Rupert Murdoch’s deep, deep pockets make for a competitive landscape. But there is no doubt the BBC has some great programming.

Which brings me back to the Olympics. Did I mention 14 channels, commercial free, all day and all night long? As an American it is strange to be watching live Olympic coverage with all the coverage focused on “Team GB.” The BBC is having a ball showing the athletes of Great Britain. There is no scoreboard of medals, because everyone understands the Chinese and Americans are going to win the most.

And the Brits tend to celebrate the athletes and the competition instead of the medal count. But the BBC revels in every medal, of whatever shade, “Team GB” wins.

While the live stream coverage is fun to watch, there are a few American television tricks I’d like to see. To my mind, the BBC is so committed to live coverage that they use too few replays. And when they show a replay, they tend to miss the best action. The BBC could use some help with graphics. Maybe a medal count once in a while. And a points scoreboard. Some name fonts?

And the old TV guy in me says, “dress up!” For God sakes, you male commentators are on national television broadcasting the Olympic games to your home country. A tee shirt and jeans is just not acceptable. Roone Arledge would have you in a tie and matching blazers with a BBC or Olympic logo on your pocket. It’s a big deal. You could at least put on a coat and tie. You are also representing your country. The women presenters dress much better.

I’m guessing a lot of Americans would resent paying $226 a year to the government for commercial-free HD channels, radio and Web. (“European Socialism.”) But this summer, it looks like quite a bargain.


Author of this blog entry, Bill Bauman, is a  retired U.S. TV GM. Here he’s visiting Omaha beach in Normandy, France. Bill also runs a consultancy, the Bauman Media Group


  1. Having to pay $226 a year? Hell, I pay that about every few months just to get cable. It’s a bargain. I’d pay $226 a year just to avoid the annoying commercials and new-show promos that interrupt the Olympics coverage every four or five minutes.

  2. A couple of small corrections and some comments:
    – There are actually 24 (not 14) digital channels just running pure streams of Olympics coverage to those with satellite or cable reception. All are in HD. There are also two curated channels of coverage with presenters and packages.
    – While the BBC is essentially tax-funded, it actually operates under a Royal Charter rather than government control. A small but important difference.
    – The licence fee in fact covers the vast majority of BBC revenues. £3.6bn comes from these fees, and they are largely immune to economic conditions. £1.5bn comes from commercial activities including BBC Worldwide and programme sales.
    – The BBC does run medal tables. GB is currently third (although there are different ways of calculating it), and it’s getting plenty of coverage. I can only think that NBC must run the table really frequently if it’s not enough.
    – Brits don’t really do sports blazers for presentation. Open neck shirts and trousers are what we expect. Sky Sports does suits, but this is sport, and ties equate to officials not presenters! If Gary Lineker (lead host on BBC coverage) wore a BBC blazer and tie he’d become a national joke!

  3. According to the BBC’s own web site, 51.3% of their revenues come from overseas.
    Open neck shirts and jeans still look like crap. What is possibly wrong with dressing up and looking good for an event that is so important to your country? Why does a country that used to look so good look so poorly for the Olympics?
    Bill Bauman.

  4. Update, good on GB! Third place in medals. No one saw that coming.

  5. The numbers I quoted come from the BBC’s Annual Report published last month – http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/annualreport/pdf/bbc_ar_online_2011_12.pdf
    I think the 51.3% figure refers to BBC Worldwide’s revenues where indeed the majority come from overseas. But Worldwide is a commercial sub-division of the main BBC.
    We’ll have to agree to differ on blazers!

  6. Resent paying $226 a year or $19/month for all the of the BBC TV plus incredible Olympic website-sign me up! At least I could look at the online content-unlike NBC who treats those of us without cable as second class citizens.
    As for commentators dressing up. I don’t care how they look as long as they know the game-something that sadly some NBC commentators don’t know.

  7. Adam,
    What I am sure we will agree on is that the BBC coverage is simply terrific.

  8. Saying the Brits tend to celebrate the athletes and the competition instead of the medal count shows you don’t understand Britain at all! Didn’t you find the coverage parochial with so much concentration on British athletes?

  9. No, I didn’t. Since I wrote this piece, GB has won more medals than in any Olympics since 1908, and I think the BBC are rightly celebrating that.

  10. Amazing. I was thinking that NBC was doing a fairly good job. Of course, I get the most out of NBCs coverage by recording with my DVR, then watching later. I skip most of the commercials and the events I’m not interested in.

  11. If you want to see an alternate source of good coverage, watch the CBC.
    All of the coverage without American networks’ constant yammering from commentators and analysts, and best if all, no “behind the scenes” emotional back-stories.

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