It does seem silly: A sporting event occurs before noon (our time) and the American television rights-holder waits until 10 p.m. (again, our time) to air it. If you prefer not to know who won before actually seeing who wins — my lovely wife is such a person — you have to cover one eye before clicking on the Internet.
Also silly is the Internet-fueled outcry toward NBC, which holds the American broadcasting rights to these Olympics. (Twitter hashtag: #NBCfail.) At a time when everything is available via the aforementioned click, why can’t the network give us everything as it happens?
Allow me to introduce myself: I have come to dislike TV immensely. I watch less of it than anyone I know. When duty calls and I’m compelled to monitor a sporting event, I often mute the sound. (Twitter hashtag: #McCarverEffect.) Ordinarily I’m greatly amused by any hint of TV-bashing, but here I have to say …
I almost — “almost,” I said — feel sorry for NBC.
The Peacock didn’t pay $1.2 billion for the rights to the London Games because synchronized swimming is the world’s most compelling viewing. NBC wanted the Olympics because they, spread over 17 days, offer an unrivaled entertainment platform. We might hate the way NBC presents them for mass consumption, but we’re still watching. (For all the backlash, ratings have been strong.)
The problem is that the Olympics are technically sporting events, and we’ve been conditioned to see all sporting events live on some channel. (Twitter hashtag: #ESPNeffect.) But it would be terrible business for NBC to air its coverage of the gymnastics finals or a Michael Phelps race as they happen for a basic television reason: They’re happening five hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time, which means they’re happening in daylight. More people, duh, watch TV at night.
To be fair, NBC does stream events live in bare-bones form on its Web site. (Also to be fair, registration is laborious.) Given that the folks griping on Twitter are by definition connected to some form of the Internet, shouldn’t that availability placate them? Apparently not. Apparently we not only want to have our cake but to have it fed to us, too.
Other criticisms of NBC: That nearly all its coverage is Americanized, that there are too many sob-story angles and that Ryan Seacrest is involved. But those complaints — OK, not the Ryan Seacrest one — have been levied against the Olympics airer long before NBC bought the rights. The “Up Close and Personal” touch was Roone Arledge’s, and back in the ’70s Arledge and ABC hit upon the formula that NBC follows still: We watch the Olympics not because we care about these events but because we’ve been conditioned (by TV) to care about the contestants.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Olympics were the first Reality TV. (Kelly Clarkson, meet Mary Lou Retton. Simon Cowell, meet Dick Button.) It didn’t matter if we saw the events live — for a time, TV took to calling its coverage “plausibly live” — as long as we saw them. The 1994 Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding skate-off in Lillehammer wasn’t shown live on CBS, but it drew a Super Bowl-like Nielsen number.
The Internet now enables everyone in the world to know who won within seconds of the actual winning, and that makes some difference. Just not enough of one to force NBC change what it’s doing. Saving the big American moments for prime time enables the network to point to its Nielsens and charge the highest ad rates, and it also affords the 17-night opportunity to promo the upcoming NBC fall schedule to death. It’s the circle of TV life, and it has ever been thus.
We forget, but one of the greatest American Olympic moments was staged in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Feb. 22, 1980, and it was not aired live in this country. (Though it was in Canada. Go figure.) The U.S.-USSR hockey game started at 5 p.m. ABC didn’t show the game until prime time. Al Michaels delivered his immortal line as it happened, but we didn’t actually hear it for another few hours.
Twitter hashtag: #DoYouBelieveInTapeDelayedMiracles?Yes!!!!
By Mark Bradley