Does NBC's Olympics coverage really deserve the criticism it's gotten?

Iconic Olympics ads through the years
Iconic Olympics ads through the years

The surest bet during any Olympics is not that Usain Bolt will win the 100 meters; it is that NBC will be trashed, loudly, in many quarters, for the quality of its coverage.

This year has brought no variation in the litany of complaints: too many tape-delayed events; overhyping of a few stars; fawning feature pieces; and, of course, jingoistic emphasis on American athletes.

I have usually steered clear of the barrage, mostly out of a sense that a) most of NBC's decision-making is driven by the billions they spend for the rights, which means it's about business, not sports results; and b) it isn't going to change because... see a).

But, without intending to, I managed to stumble into the crossfire this year when I happened to send out a tweet about my viewing experience while out in California during the first week of the games. I had been out all day and unaware of what had transpired when I happened to settle into the hotel bar with a glass of wine about 9 p.m. Across the room the prime-time coverage was on -- without sound -- and from the on-screen promos I quickly gleaned that the men's 4x100 freestyle relay, including Michael Phelps, was "coming up."

It was already about 1 a.m. in Rio, so obviously the race was long over, and would be playing on the US West Coast on tape delay. I had never watched an Olympic event on anything but Eastern time, so I was suddenly thrust into a situation West Coast viewers have long experienced during the Olympics (though not other major sports events, like NFL football.) They have to wait three hours to see events that ran live in the East.

But OK, I could wait. The bar was pleasant; so was the wine. I could spend some time checking out my Twitter feed... Oh, no, I could not. If I breezed through whatever had been on Twitter the past few hours, it was highly likely I would run into people talking about the day's results. So I had to steer clear of every avenue of information if I wanted to enjoy the live suspense of that race.

Related: Five takeaways from NBC's Rio Olympics coverage

It took me back to 1980, when some bizarre Olympic scheduling had set the men's semi-final hockey game at 5 p.m. Eastern -- even though the Winter Games were in Lake Placid, NY. I drove home that night without the radio on, avoided newscasts, didn't answer the phone. But my plans blew up when I tried to buy some items in a 7-Eleven and the rock DJ interrupted some tune by Kool and the Gang or whomever to announce: "If you're going to win the gold in hockey you've got to beat the Russians and that's just what the USA did tonight..."

Thanks, man.

After watching the exciting race, the situation moved me to send out a tweet saying: "worst thing about being on west coast: waiting 3 hrs to see spectacular men's swim relay+having to avoid twitter et al to insure suspense."

My tweet led to hundreds of likes and retweets within hours -- and about a week more of the same. A major reason was that one response came from NBC's Olympic production boss, Jim Bell, who asked why I had not simply watched NBC's live stream of the event. When I said I had been busy all day, and was now in a bar, he suggested I "move back to the east coast."

I have known Bell for more than a decade and I recognized he was needling me, not jousting with me. But the exchange set off a fusillade of angry responses among those incensed by NBC's programming decisions -- and then it all blew up on Reddit. Dominant was personal resentment directed toward Bell for how NBC was covering the events. Typical: "Jimbo, thanks for giving two rips; your coverage sucks, BTW."

I actually don't think it sucks. NBC's coverage has, as always, run the gamut -- worth some carping and some praise. On the negative side: the mistake about Simone Biles's parents was pretty awful; keeping the gymnastics finals for late hours is unfair to kids who love the sport and parents who want to watch with them. On the plus side: NBC's camerawork had been almost uniformly fantastic; and some analysts have been outstanding. (Ato Boldon on sprints, for example.)

Related: Rio ratings are hurting; are streaming options eating into TV viewership?

One criticism that was really ratcheted up this year involves the commercials, deemed to be heavier than ever before. (NBC says that's not the case.) The truth is, TV viewers are being increasingly weaned away from exposure to commercials thanks to DVRs as well as Netflix and its brethren -- except, of course, during live sports. But NBC's packaged prime-time coverage, especially in gymnastics, plays more like a TV show than a sports event, so commercials rankle viewers accustomed to avoiding them.

Like every other issue targeted by critics, the commercial interruptions remain a necessary evil to defray the gigantic rights costs. NBC has such an enormous investment in the Olympics -- it paid $4.38 billion for the games from 2014 to 2020, and $7.75 billion for those through 2032 -- that it has to hope it can continue to keep advertisers involved and happy.

The ratings declines this year have been well noted: NBC has averaged a prime-time audience of 26.8 million. That's down about 18 percent from the London games in 2012, though it's off only 8 percent from Beijing in 2008. NBC will now have to sell against the diminished numbers in the games to come in 2, 4, and 6 years -- although virtually nothing on TV consistently pulls in 25 million-plus viewers. The Olympic hierarchy has done NBC no favors by placing all three of those upcoming games in Asia: South Korea in 2018; Tokyo in 2020; Beijing in 2022.

Related: NBC dominates rivals but hits second lowest viewership for Rio Olympics

NBC has made significant strides this time with its live streaming effort. It has made it tougher to harangue NBC for delaying a big event to juice its prime-time average. A huge number of hours have been available in streams, which should cut down on the complaints about tape-delays. Many more viewers, especially younger ones, have turned to the streamed events.

But the big bucks still come from the prime-time network coverage. Asian time zones will present far more challenges for NBC as it works to package events for the prime hours. Bell told me he does expect a decent portion of the Asian based games to be available live in prime time in the US (on the East Coast, of course.) He mentioned skiing in the Winter Games (which of course is run in daylight hours, and presumably some could come off in the mornings, meaning evenings in New York, etc.)

He also noted that in the summer games in Beijing in 2008, many events, including a lot of swimming and some gymnastics, were scheduled in the daytime to make live coverage possible -- and NBC will try to emphasize to the Olympic organizers that its massive rights money should win some influence on scheduling in Tokyo.

But forecasting anything about television four years out -- or even two years out -- is a longshot play. The pace of change in the ways that viewers find and use TV programs is warp speed. If they are still staging Olympics in 2032, people will probably still want to see them, but almost surely on their own terms, not NBC's.


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