Another day of action in London, another day of inaction by NBC. At 3:55 Eastern time today, Usain Bolt will run the men's 200-meter final. Five or six or seven hours later, NBC will get around to letting television viewers in the United States see what Bolt has done.
Or you can go to NBC's website, plug into the live stream, and—if Bolt's Olympic record-breaking performance in the 100 is precedent—have the whole thing crap out at race time.
NBC's incompetent handling of live sports has been the one great constant in these Olympic games. And NBC's response to complaints has been: Eh. Look at our ratings. We will not listen to the "noise." We will flagrantly quote Richard Nixon on Vietnam and thank the "silent majority" for providing record ratings.
As obnoxious as NBC executives can sound—You do not have an inalienable right to watch the Olympics—there's no real point in arguing against their primetime strategy. It gets eyeballs, delivers them to the advertisers, and rakes in money.
The question is, does it have to work at the expense of live action? Or could there be another way to run a fantastically well-watched Olympics, without alienating the portion of the audience that actually cares about sports? What if there were some constructive way to serve both sides?
When you consider that 100-meter final, it's hard to believe that NBC is fully looking out for its own best interests. The race was run late Sunday afternoon—an hour at which American audiences are used to watching major sports events, like the U.S. Open or, you know, a monstrously well-rated AFC Championship game.
But instead of one of the premier events of the Summer Olympics, NBC was busy showing women's volleyball. That's the sort of thing a network shows when it knows it can't beat the competition. Only in this case, NBC was counterprogramming against its own tape vault.
NBC has run into trouble with the whole tape-delay stuff for years. In the '90s, these were the geniuses who came up with the "plausibly live" theory, a really cynical catchphrase that told viewers: We will just pretend it's live.
The pretense doesn't work for networks anymore. During the 1998 Winter Olympics, it was CBS that embarrassed itself by trying to run a Wide World of Sports-type show at night. The network went off the air as Picabo Street was skiing her way to a gold medal. CBS did not broadcast it.
When primetime coverage resumed the next day, CBS teased the Street race throughout the night. It didn't get to broadcasting the race until 10:18 p.m., or 23 hours and 17 minutes after she won the gold. CBS was hammered for it. Here's a former CBS exec last year on the incident to the Times:
The Picabo Street thing haunts me. […] I had a conscious decision. I could put it on the network, but who was going to watch at 2:30 in the morning? We didn't, and I didn't air it until nearly 24 hours after it happened. In the meantime, she'd done every show in America, holding her skis and gold medal.
Fourteen years later, this issue is still here. NBC can't even keep from spoiling its own packaged suspense.
So what if NBC quit trying to hide the results? The network's own research shows that viewers are, if anything, more likely to watch the packaged primetime show if they know the results. In a new Gallup poll, a majority of people said they'd prefer to see it live on NBC and then on tape-delay later at night.
It makes sense. SportsCenter continues to thrive by offering neat, narrative highlight packages that hold sports results till the end—even though ESPN itself is putting all the scores online and scrolling them across the bottom of the picture, and even though people may have just watched the game in question on ESPN.
So we spoke to a sports TV executive to get his take. Could NBC create an Olympics that married live coverage with prime-time packaging? Or is the opposition to breaking results too deeply ingrained?
"The fact that they livestreamed everything is a good-faith effort in the right direction," the TV exec told us. Definitely. Except ... the livestreaming isn't working.
"They're stuck between two worlds," the exec went on. "They're living in the era of the '80s and '90s and they're in denial. In theory, they're doing a pretty good job of livestreaming the Olympics, but they just didn't have the infrastructure to support it. Maybe in two years or four years they'll pull it off and then everyone will be happy."
Our ideal broadcast would have to adapt, maybe on the fly. Once it became clear that NBC's livestreaming was balky, the TV executive said, the network should've run some stuff live on the network. It's not done solely to appease the #NBCFail crowd. There might be real money in it for them, too. Especially when you consider that the people who told Gallup they want both live and primetime coverage are "higher-income and more-educated"—advertiser catnip, in other words.
"The quality has to be good, that's a technological thing, and that's step one," said the TV exec. "Step two, for the big moments, especially if it involves Americans, you really should run that live on the network. You'll be doing the same thing on a TV screen as you're doing on the computer. They should experiment with it. The internet is so ubiquitous now that half the people who watch your shit on tape that night already know the result. They may have tried watching it earlier in the day!"
What's the rationale behind holding this stuff until primetime? Maybe NBC execs figure the ratings are so good, why bother mucking with it? (Although there's a tiny bit of evidence that the really impressive ratings are starting to flatline a bit).
Or maybe it's a lot less thought out than that. Maybe it really stems from the same mentality that brought us plausibly live coverage and Picabo Street unstuck in time.
"Maybe there's a philosophy of you can't broadcast the same thing two times in a day, you can't broadcast the same thing," said the exec. "'That's nuts! That's not what we do.' And that's an old-school mentality."
The result of an individual event isn't the thing that matters, as NBC knows better than anyone. What matters is conveying the notion of the Olympics As Big Event—the schlocky intros, the exposure to sports you'd never otherwise watch, the idea that everyone else in America is watching this, too. It's the whole circus that matters most to NBC, not which seal balances the ball on its nose the longest.
So why not just throw an event on NBC or the NBC Sports Network for the 10 seconds, or two minutes, or however long the competition last? It's not hard to imagine the sort of broadcast that might take shape: live coverage during the day and then something at night that's equal parts Wide World of Sports and SportsCenter—a highlights show that admits it's a highlights show. Crank up all the faux-drama and suspense you want; just drop the charade of airing something that's "plausibly live."
"Look, you don't want to nuke your primetime ratings," the exec said. "But why not experiment with some of these major moments live? And if the quality of the streaming is actually decent then it becomes both ironically less important to run it live on the network and sillier not to.
"And you know, I keep coming back to the fact that they are running this live on nbc.com," the exec continued. "They are running it live! What's the difference if they run it live on TV?"