Essay: NBC’s Olympics Coverage isn’t Great, but makes Perfect Sense from a Business Perspective

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Along with the now every two years ritual of the Olympics comes the equally predictable ritual of vitriolic complaints about the way NBC handles its broadcast of the Olympics. NBC seems to have had the rights to every Winter and Summer Olympic Games for my entire conscious lifetime (I’m 39) and according to Derek Thompson at The Atlantic they’ve already acquired the rights to every Olympics between 2014 and 2020, so their apparent long term strategy of making “The Peacock” brand synonymous with Olympics coverage has been successful, for better and for worse.

For the last few Olympics NBC has had to deal with a radically changed television and media landscape, and presumably this trend will only accelerate for the next four Olympics NBC has the rights to. The rapid proliferation of new cable channels, devices, platforms, internet streaming options etc. has meant unprecedented competition for an old school broadcast network like NBC, and the rapid proliferation of social media platforms has meant an unprecedented number of forums for people to complain about NBC’s coverage.

The cutting edge of complaining, of course, is Twitter, a social media platform beloved by mainstream media types because celebrities are on it but whose user base actually skews overwhelmingly towards young, affluent, tech and media types. Twitter users are more likely to be part of cutting edge media trends, but because the mainstream media is fascinated by Twitter, these trends are then erroneously reported in media trend pieces as being widespread. A good example is “cable cutting” or “cord cutting” the idea that massive numbers of households who had cable subscriptions in the past are intentionally stopping them so they can stream Netflix content on their Rokus or simply watch stuff on their computer screen. As Thompson writes studies estimating the percentage of American households who actually qualify as “cable cutters” come up with numbers as low as 2 percent. In addition, while techie types have been predicting the imminent demise of the cable TV subscription model for a decade, “Between 80 and 90 percent of households have a cable subscription, and the level has been pretty steady for the last ten years.”

So, armed with the hashtag #NBCfail Twitter users have managed to make a whole lot of noise and give the mistaken impression that there is widespread dissatisfaction with NBC’s handling of the Olympics in the broader public and not just among the more affluent, young, tech-savvy part of the public that uses Twitter. To be fair, a lot of the complaints are perfectly valid and some aspects of NBC’s coverage have been horrible. Their decision to not show a part of the Opening Ceremony honoring the victims of London’s 7/7 terror attacks and air a pre-recorded Ryan Seacrest interview of Michael Phelps instead was particularly unconscionable.

But a lot of the complaints sound like entitled whining, or at the very least display a perspective that isn’t indicative of the way the vast majority of Americans consume media. For instance, lost in all the complaints that NBC isn’t showing enough of the Olympic events live and isn’t embracing the internet enough is the fact that NBC is actually streaming the Olympics live all day on their website. However, the stream is set up in such a way that the user can’t access it unless they have a cable subscription. This is perfectly understandable. After all, NBC is now owned by a cable company. But that hasn’t stopped a large number of the #NBCfail Twitter users, who apparently are part of the cable cutting 2 percent, from complaining about this like it’s some sort of huge injustice.

More fundamentally, a lot of these complaints seem to miss the fact that NBC pays a huge amount of money to broadcast the Olympics and a lot of the choices about how they handle their broadcast are an understandable and very successful attempt to maximize prime time ratings and therefore advertiser dollars. I’m a staunch anti-corporate lefty in my personal politics, but to expect a huge entertainment conglomerate like Comcast/NBC to abandon a proven business model of showing the big Olympic events tape-delayed during prime time is unrealistic. As the excellent TV critic Jaime Weinman writes “…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.”

There are plenty of things to complain about regarding NBC’s coverage, from vapid Bob Costas commentary to the relentless pushing of pre-ordained narratives and stars, such as the non-stop focus on Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps. But to expect NBC to worry much about the media preferences of a small subset of young, tech-savvy people who seem to expect everything broadcast live on all devices and platforms, preferably for free, or to expect NBC to ignore the pursuit of prime time advertiser dollars is unrealistic. NBC’s coverage may be a “fail” in terms of delivering the best possible viewing experience for all viewers at all times, but it’s a “win” for the vast majority of American viewers, who are content to watch what amounts to a clip show of America-centric highlights during prime time after they come home from work and for NBC in its pursuit of prime time advertising dollars.

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