August 5, 2012

The pros and cons of the 2012 Olympics on NBC

The pros and cons of the 2012 Olympics on NBC

NBC logoI was originally going to hold off on writing this until this year’s Olympics were over, but given the constant stream of remarks online about this year’s games, I thought I’d post this now.

I thought I’d list the pros and cons of NBC’s treatment of the Olympics this year. I figure seeing what NBC’s actually doing right, as well as offering constructive criticism of how to improve what’s wrong (which I admit is a lot), might be useful.

Pros

  • NBC’s biggest positive this year is that they’re finally airing all Olympic events live in some form of another; the Peacock network’s achieving this by streaming everything online. And yes, that’s everything, ranging from NBC’s quadrennial Olympic obsession with swimming and gymnastics to minor events like table tennis (yep, an Olympic sport), handball, and badminton. Replays of almost all of the events are also available through NBC’s website. Most of the streaming coverage is either a camera pointed at the events with no commentators, or is accompanied by a generic (British) commentator. Since streaming is coming via YouTube, it’s likely the same generic global feed the Olympics is offering to areas of the world where the games aren’t available through a national over-the-air broadcaster (large portions of Africa and Asia, for instance). Given the inanity of NBC-proper’s primetime coverage and commentary (see “cons”), not hearing any announcers for some may be a big plus.
  • NBC’s also making use of its various cable channels (CNBC, MSNBC, a few specialty channels) for coverage of some events, particularly boxing, soccer, and basketball. Said channels also air some replays of their live coverage. The cable channels treat the coverage in a professional fashion, without NBC-proper’s primetime down sides. (Oddly, USA isn’t being used as an Olympic channel this year; are 21 hours a day of “Law and Order” reruns more lucrative than live sports?!)
  • NBC-proper (that is, the over-the-air TV network, not its cable channel cousins) is also airing various events live during daytime hours. From what I’ve seen, the daytime broadcasts cover the events in full, and with much less of the sliced-and-diced aspects of their primetime coverage.

Cons

  • Coverage of the opening ceremonies. Besides not streaming/airing it live (like all the other events) and editing out a tribute to victims of terrorism for dubious nationalistic reasons, NBC’s announcers also gave it their usual “unique” commentary. Fortunately, I avoided NBC’s opening (save the parade of nations portion, though that was mostly with the TV on “mute”) and watched the BBC’s version on YouTube (before it was removed).
  • NBC’s announcers, as noted above. Their commentary during the parade of nations too often sounded inane, ignorant, and (in a few cases) offensive.
  • While I expect a primarily American focus, NBC-proper’s coverage comes off as somewhat nationalistic in tone, forgetting that this is a global event, not a US-centered one. Which leads to…
  • The badness of NBC-proper’s primetime highlights (aka tape-delayed) coverage. This year, NBC’s doing the right thing in airing or streaming all events live during the daytime hours, then airing a highlights reel in primetime; their daytime TV/cable channel coverage is also done adequately. However, oddly NBC itself seems to go off the rails once primetime comes along. Hence, lots of complaints about (as @Jocelyn_ on Twitter put it) seemingly spending “8 seconds” on covering a sport, putting an excessively pro-US spin on coverage, or the announcers pretending they don’t know the outcome of some event (despite being tape-delayed coverage, and NBC’s own website/everywhere else online having long since noted the results).
  • Probable paranoia about cord-cutting (and being owned by Comcast not helping) has led to NBC requiring one to have a digital cable TV subscription to watch any of the streaming coverage, something no other country’s streaming coverage requires. And of course, no  attempt at a “carrot” approach in offering a discount cable TV package if one signs up during the Olympics, or offering the streaming as a stand-alone package they’d charge for—instead, it’s “no expensive cable TV subscription, no streaming, period.” Which just seems to encourage cord-cutters to make “other arrangements” (streaming BBC or Canada’s CTV if they’re tech-savvy enough), for all of mainstream media’s gripes about piracy.
  • The usual heavy number of ads are a common complaint come Olympics-time, but I’ve seen complaints about ads popping up even in streaming coverage (which already requires an expensive cable subscription). Though ad blockers can block such ads…
  • Authentication for streaming coverage didn’t come smoothly for me, though it was related to Flash in Linux not automatically installing a DRM module (see here for how to fix that).

Think I’ve hit all the major high and low points. That said, “spoiling the outcome of games” I don’t really consider a “con”—it’s a global event (not timed for the benefit of us North Americans) and it’s not 1988 anymore. It seems silly to me to complain about “spoiling” something like a live sporting event, unless one plans on cutting off all media/Internet usage for two weeks.

Now that I’ve listed the above, here’s my suggestions to NBC as to how to improve things in time for 2014’s Winter Olympics (in Sochi, Russia) or 2016’s Summer Olympics (in Rio de Janeiro):

  • Offer the streaming coverage to anyone without cable for a set fee. If this is too “radical,” at least make offers (via corporate owner Comcast) for a “sign up for cable before or during the Games and get several months free” type of package. While live sports is cable’s biggest trump card left in stopping cord-cutting, I don’t see it as stopping someone determined enough (see: proxy/VPN usage to get BBC or CTV, or various sketchy illegal streams), or those who might want to watch the Olympics but otherwise aren’t dedicated sports fans.
  • Air the opening and closing ceremonies live like everything else, even if it’s just streamed online. NBC can still rebroadcast it in primetime, ad breaks and all.
  • For NBC in primetime, focus more narrowly on rebroadcasting the day’s events in full (versus jumping around), and recognize it’s OK to acknowledge non-Americans (and not as part of some forced-sounding “us versus them rivalry” “narrative”).
  • Require the commentators to have done their research beforehand, and know who people like Tim Berners-Lee actually are. (If I have to “Google him,” it’d probably be just as easy to skip watching NBC altogether and find someone’s coverage of all this already posted on a file-sharing site, etc.).
  • Show more respect to other nations (including not editing out their terrorism tributes and learning something about countries other than “it has a funny name”). Leave the nationalism/jingoism to Fox’s domain (and the cracks about funny country names to us viewers at home… or the writers of the old “Timon & Pumbaa” TV show).
While NBC’s coverage is greatly improved over four years ago (in that everything is finally being aired live), it clearly still has a long ways to go. Despite the above suggestions, NBC seems quite slow in changing how they cover the games, especially since it still gets them high ratings. Thus, I’m guessing more disgruntled tech-savvy viewers will still be turning to “alternate” viewing means in the future…

Tags: MediaNBCOlympicssportsTV