The Backpage Debate: NBC's tape delay of Olympic coverage

Monday, August 6, 2012 at 9:05pm
By Steven Hale and J.R. Lind

Many of the conversations that happen around here at Backpage Central are about important things. Weighty matters. Seminal events of our time. And they’re also about men’s swimming, too. When NBC elected to bump most of Michael Phelps’ races to prime time, it started a debate among viewers, the Twitterverse and, yes, amongst our Backpagers. In an effort to bring you, gentle reader, the highest-quality commentary possible, we bring you a new feature — The Backpage Debate —
wherein two of our finest will affirm or negate a resolution based on only the most important topics.

BE IT RESOLVED: That NBC’s tape delay of premier Olympic events is dumb.


On the Affirmative: Steven Hale

“As programmers, we are charged to manage the business. And this is a business. It’s not everyone’s inalienable right to get whatever they want.”

That’s what NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus told the SportsBusiness Journal in response to the overwhelming criticism of his network’s Olympics coverage. The first bit makes it clear — serving viewers is not the priority. The second is fatuous, and only clever if you’re the type of person who “wins” an argument by shouting, “Well, that’s your opinion!”

On Lazarus’ terms, one cannot argue that NBC’s Olympics coverage is stupid. (The latest figures suggest the network might even break even on the deal). For him and the network, tape-delayed television coverage (or live Web streaming, if you like stop-motion swimming) of premier events is not stupid, in the same way that George Lucas’ decision to put out Star Wars: Episodes 1-3 (each of which made more than half a billion dollars) was not stupid. Which is to say it’s obviously stupid. Viewers will turn out when there’s only one option, sure, but that doesn’t validate the decision to hold them hostage.

The prime-time result has been less Worldwide Sporting Event and more prepackaged reality show. But the most egregious effect of that decision is that NBC is now covering an infrequent global event the way your local television news station covers a garage fire. News is breaking now! Tune in at 7 p.m. for more! This was evidenced when NBC’s widely followed @BreakingNews Twitter
account stopped breaking the news last week and started simply announcing that an Olympic event had concluded, shielding the Stone Age set from spoilers in the real-time world.

So a storied news operation is giving us Morse code coverage in an iPhone world. NBC is deferring to the demographic of people who apparently still live in a world where news only breaks right before the Leno show. Of course, not everyone has a job that would allow them to sit around and watch the Olympics live. They have my sympathy. But some people missed the Royal Wedding and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, too, and the whole country wasn’t asked to DVR the day’s events and wait for a more convenient time.

It’s 2012. Snape kills Dumbledore. Kevin Spacey is Keyser Soze. Rosebud is his childhood sled. Keep up. The revolution will not be tape-delayed.


On the Negative: J.R. Lind

If intelligence in business is measured by success, refuting the resolution is no chore.

NBC’s ratings for the London Olympics have set records with eye-popping numbers for their nightly prime-time coverage of the premiere events.

Because of the five-hour time difference from the U.S. to the U.K., the events shown in the prime-time bloc are tape-delayed. It’s an Olympic tradition, the tape delay, dating back to the first televised Olympics in the 1960s. The only time it isn’t employed is when the time difference is manageable or when the host city — as in Beijing — is willing to set start times to accommodate Western audiences.

In the 24-hour news cycle and the world of Twitter and constant Internet news updates, the outcome of the events NBC shows in its moneymaking hours is already well-known to even the half-informed.
Not that it’s keeping anyone from watching.

For NBC’s dollar, keeping the high-interest events off the air until prime time protects its exclusivity and prohibits rival broadcasters from running full-motion highlights of the events before NBC has a chance to cash in on them.

Not that anyone watching really cares about NBC’s exclusivity.

What the consumer wants is more, and even by this metric, NBC is delivering: more than 5,500 hours of Olympic sports on TV, nearly all of it live or close enough thereto. Further, nearly every minute of the Olympics is available via streaming online video.

Really, people? NBC gave you the ability to watch the Olympics on your phone and you’re going to complain about waiting three hours to watch women’s gymnastics on TV? What century are you living in?

NBC’s presentation has also been a target of the ever-growing Irony Generation, who find the standard fare of saccharine features and homer interviews to be overly earnest. (Any and all criticisms of NBC’s presentation of the opening ceremony are completely justified.)

But NBC is not simply in the business of the ice-cold math of wins, losses, distances and times. That’s what the agate page is for, and people who don’t like narratives should consume their sports the way the rest of us consume our bank statements.

NBC is an entertainment company — again, a very successful one — and if their presentation has undertones of reality TV, it’s not an accident: The model works. Vast expanses of America like stories and like experiencing the big events in prime time, be they live or not.

NBC knows it, and that makes them smart.

And rich.

2 Comments on this post:

By: PKVol on 8/7/12 at 9:09

My biggest complaint is jumping around from one sport to another. Show the event to its conclusion and then move on to the next event. Stop creating drama that isn't there by showing a portion of an event, going to another and then back to the first event. Keep things in context. I wouldn't stop a Titans game at halftime, start recording it so I can watch a Predators game and then go back and watch the recording of the 2nd half of the Titans game.

Also, by the time you eliminate the 'fluff' and the ads, the 4 hour evening block probably has, at best 1-1/2 hours of actual event coverage and this is including the time waiting for introduction of the athletes, the judges scores and the 'celebration-time'.

By: Left-of-Local on 8/7/12 at 9:35

Did anyone EXPECT network TV to not suck balls? I mean, really.

Let's see about getting HBO to cover it. Then it will have some integrity.