NBC's tape-delay coverage of Olympics frustrating for sports fans
U.S. had best night in Winter Olympic history ... only it wasn't the best night
NBC is holding most of its coverage for primetime, but by then drama is gone
The problem with the Olympics is it's not a conventional sporting event
Is there anything more frustrating for a sports fan than watching the Olympics? Every night I feel like I'm sitting down with a great book, and after I read the first 10 pages, I discover that pages 11 to 25 have been crossed out, and then I'm supposed to skip to page 102, and by the way, I inadvertently read the ending nine hours ago.
The U.S. just had its best night in Winter Olympic history, which should have been awesome entertainment, and it was pretty cool, except ... it wasn't really the best night the U.S. ever had. Lindsey Vonn had won gold in the women's downhill hours before NBC primetime coverage began.
In 2010, how are you supposed to avoid that news? All we do is communicate with each other. We e-mail. We text. Everybody's grandmother is on Facebook. Thanks to Twitter, you can understand Kim Kardashian's thoughts before she does. Are we supposed to avoid our local newspaper's Web site and favorite blogs and Facebook and Twitter and not check our text messages?
If you want NBC's coverage to seem suspenseful -- if you want, in other words, to feel like a sports fan -- then you have to build a tiny brick house, then take the last brick and hit yourself over the head until you're unconscious.
Tape-delayed coverage is a time-honored Olympic tradition, as venerated as the rings and political boycotts. But it seems especially ridiculous now.
First of all, the Olympics are in Vancouver, which is in Canada, which is attached to the United States. (SIDE NOTE: A Binghamton basketball player reading this just got three credits for Remedial Geography.) It just feels absurd to delay coverage from Vancouver.
My friend Chris points out that he lives in the same time zone as Vancouver ... therefore he must watch the Olympics on tape-delay. My friend Dave said there was an exciting finish to the biathlon (I don't know how that is possible, but perhaps they replaced the rifles with hand grenades) and it was shown on a 20-minute delay for no good reason.
And this brings us to the main problem: it is not 1988 anymore. Everybody expects to know everything immediately.
What is NBC thinking? I have a theory on that. It might sound crazy, maybe I have no idea what I'm talking about, but ...
Maybe NBC wants to make money.
(Or, you know, lose as little money as possible.)
NBC wants to maximize its audience, and theoretically, that is precisely what we should want from NBC: to please as many people as possible.
The problem is not NBC -- or, at least, not just NBC. The problem is that, as entertainment, the Olympics are not a sporting event in any conventional sense.
Think about it. As you read this, roughly 900,000 people in Cleveland are pacing around their offices, worried LeBron James will sign with the Knicks. Millions of people are watching Mel Kiper Jr. break down the upcoming NFL Draft's Top Five Left Tackles Who Are Overrated But Would Be Underrated If They Played Right Tackle, Which They Don't.
This is because sports fans care about this stuff. We follow it. We want to know who signed Hideki Matsui and whether Rafael Nadal will be healthy enough for the French. (The Open, not the female population.)
We are invested in these people, in their sports. We understand them. We follow the arc of their careers.
Meanwhile, if Julia Mancuso had knocked on your door two months ago, wearing her blue U.S. winter coat, you would have thought, "Wow, the new mailman is cute!"
We follow this stuff for two weeks every four years. If you gathered the exact same men's snowboardcross field on the same mountainside next winter, you probably couldn't find a major American network to televise it.
NBC understands this. The Olympics are a show. You can complain that NBC obsesses over every American and worries too much about storylines and features. But without patriotic fervor and feel-good stories, the Winter Olympics are just a series of options for going down a mountain. That hasn't been interesting since Moses did it.
Sports fans want to see some hockey -- this Olympic tournament should be highly compelling theater. But have you ever tried to get a non-hockey fan to watch hockey? It's like asking a squirrel to play Guitar Hero. Not happening. So you won't see much hockey on NBC. (You will get some on NBC's cable networks.)
NBC delays the woman's downhill coverage and condenses another Alpine event into 47 seconds and goes heavy on the figure skating. And diehard sports fans go insane. But if they showed the downhill in real time, would this many people watch?
The NBC model is precisely why the Olympics became such a popular television event in the first place. Obviously, NBC thinks it still works.
And for a lot of people, it does. Bob Costas is the ultimate sportscaster, Al Michaels is a legend and the Olympics are better in HD than most sports, because of the setting. It's not fair to say NBC's coverage has been bad. In many ways, it has been terrific. It's more accurate to say that it's not the coverage sports fans have come to expect.
So what we have is sports-viewing chaos. I don't know if I'm supposed to avoid all human communication for a day or scour the Internet for a pirated video feed from Slovakia.
Where do we go from here? ESPN has made noise about acquiring the Olympics. The next pair to hit the auction block will be the 2014 winter games in Sochi, Russia, and the 2016 summer games in Rio de Janeiro. (The Rio games will make for riveting television, partly because everybody will be naked.)
NBC expects to lose roughly $200 million on these Olympics. Combine that with ESPN's desire to own every sporting event, as well as the countries that compete in them, and it is easy to imagine an ESPN/ABC Olympics. Or perhaps a Fox Olympics.
That could mean a more conventional sports-viewing experience for Americans -- live coverage of whatever you want, whenever you want, even if you have to go online to get it. And if you're a sports fan, it is tempting to conclude that ESPN or Fox would get better ratings and make more money that way.
Maybe. But maybe not. Maybe we should stop expecting TV to treat these contests like normal sporting events, when we don't really see them that way ourselves.