Photo via RyanSeacrest.com
Photo via RyanSeacrest.com
Sports fans and writers have complained plenty since Friday about NBC’s poor handling of their Olympic broadcast. If we’re to believe the Peacock’s coverage, Americans constitute roughly 80 percent of the world's greatest athletes, all but a few sports hold little interest for viewers, and the best performers are worth our time not just because they win gold, but because they have compelling personal stories and adoring/adorable parents and if possible the sort of personal talisman—maybe a diamond grill, maybe a stuffed animal of some kind—that can be mentioned, significantly and excitedly, over and over again. It’s all vaguely insulting, to the point where it's easy to see how the hashtag #NBCfail has prospered after only a few days of events.
Whether or not this deluge of criticism matters to NBC’s already bruised bottom line is up for debate, and not something we'd know yet, anyway. Jaime Weinman of Maclean’s, for one, argues that there are plenty of good reasons for the network's practices, including record ratings:
Correlation doesn’t prove causation; you can’t prove that the ratings would not have been equally good or better with a more social-media-friendly plan. But at the very least, there’s no proof that ignoring or downplaying social media has been a problem for ratings. 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.
You could actually turn the new-media evangelists’ argument around and say that in a world of many media choices, networks need to do more–not less–to maximize the number of people watching TV in prime time. In the old media world of three channels, all they had to worry about was whether we might watch one of the other channels or, heaven forbid, read a book. Now, with so many options available to us, networks may need–from a business standpoint, I mean, not a moral one–to make it worth our while to forego those other options when they have something we really want. Most of the time, of course, TV networks don’t have something we must have; there’s almost no scripted program so important that we need to watch it as soon as possible, and sometimes we enjoy them more if we wait a while to watch them. But a big sports event? Those things are still incredibly valuable, and whatever gets the largest number of people watching them after 7 (when advertising rates are higher) might be worthwhile.
Weinman does well to differentiate between a strategy that serves NBC’s business interests and one that serves its viewers. This is the fairly obvious sticking point for so many complainers (and I use that word fondly) on Twitter—that NBC is more concerned with making money than airing sports in the immediate manner we’re accustomed to. It’s in many ways a rejection of the form of competition, an attempt to make a definitionally global event into something familiarly American.
Sporting events are always attended by narratives—you already know this, and not just because we have written on this point here many times before. What’s unique about the NBC Olympics is that they don’t even always seem like sports as we know them. In truth, they often have more in common with the primetime programming that NBC airs on every other non-NFL Sunday.
The broadcast is athletic competition communicated with an unheard-of level of editorial control, in which stars are picked before the games begin, sports are prized for their ability to produce narrative—would swimming be aired so often if not for its glut of events?—and performance comes secondary to what people can say about it; all these years later, how many people have actually watched Rulon Gardner’s famous upset over Aleksandr Karelin?. The goal here is almost to create characters, much like the creatures from Madagascar that Matt Lauer referenced when introducing Madagascar during the Opening Ceremony’s parade of nations.
By this view, there’s no more reason for NBC to air Olympic competitions live than there is to show The Voice simultaneously in every time zone. This isn’t really sports—it’s a spectacle guaranteed to bring in viewers and establish NBC as a home for quality programming. Weinman, then, is totally justified in assessing the effectiveness of this strategy as a ratings stunt rather than a form of sports broadcasting, because it is a business strategy first and foremost. For NBC, the goal has never been to air sports in a manner that maximizes their exposure; that’s a happy byproduct. If they cared about that at all, then they wouldn’t cut to commercial in the middle of action, as they have on NBC Sports Network many times; or only use Bravo for tennis a couple hours per day; or turn their primetime broadcasts into variety shows—my colleague David Roth calls it "Emo SportsCenter"—instead of showing as many minutes of gymnastics and swimming and volleyball as possible.
Naturally, the problem with this plan is that most viewers are not completely stupid and know sports when they see them. They don’t necessarily dislike watching the Olympics this way—the sports themselves and the inherent weight of the moments are impressive enough that they’re still watchable even when the results are already known. But people—even those without Twitter accounts and who are too busy to watch events when they really happen—are smart enough to know that there’s something off about this entire operation.
It’s no surprise that more fans gravitate towards the smaller events—handball seems to have gained some indie cred this go-round, and curling is officially an underground sensation at this point in the Winter Olympics’ history—because that’s often the only way viewers can watch something that hasn’t been packaged for consumption by NBC. The only escape from the Ryan Lochte Ubiquity is to retreat to the farthest recesses of the games, where those network-approved stars and meticulously crafted narratives don’t exist.
NBC has effectively decided that anything we don’t see on SportsCenter every day must therefore be presented to the audience in an overwhelmingly familiar manner. But while sports can be funny and dramatic and ridiculous, they’re still fundamentally different than sitcoms and dramas and reality shows. The joy of watching sports is largely in the spontaneity, in watching a random game and knowing that something totally unexpected and amazing could happen, perhaps unintentionally, at any time. Presenting this competition as if it were any other primetime tentpole—complete with appearances by Ryan Seacrest!—is to rob it of its unique charm.
The sad irony of all this is that NBC has chosen a losing strategy even if its ratings continue to soar. No matter how many people watch the Olympics—and, again, there’s little reason to think people will stop—their plan will continue to look like a backwards refutation of the character of the event they’ve bought the rights to air. If the Olympics are a network brand-builder, then NBC will establish itself as the sort of network that disregards its viewers’ intelligence (and makes intentionally bad shows) in the name of short-term gains. These tactics don’t please viewers, artists, or network executives over time. Mostly, this approach does two things: deliver instant gratification for advertisers and a progressively worse cultural experience for everyone else.