The Olympics, NBC Style or How to be Thoroughly Annoyed When Watching the Olympics

(Note: I have a post on The Newsroom that I am finishing up, but it is the Olympics, and I can’t let a chance to write about the Olympics pass me by!)

Four years ago, the Olympics were in Beijing, I was in London, and I experienced my first viewing experience away from the US.  I wrote about it back then just as I was tentatively getting used to the coverage of the event on the BBC. That year 98% of my Olympics was viewed on my computer as I lived in a residential hall without a television, with very little trouble. In 2010, I watched the Winter Olympics on a television, but still on the BBC. I thoroughly enjoyed both of those viewing experiences, and I had hoped to watching the 2012 Olympics in London. But as the best laid plans tend to go, I am back in the US watching these Olympics on NBC.

Because of this, it is hard to say how much watching the past two Olympics on the BBC has shaped my feelings about how I want to watch the games, or how much my disappointment of not actually being in London clouds my judgment on these games. Perhaps, I was always going to be critical of anything but BBC coverage. All I know is that almost every primetime viewing of this Olympics starting from the Opening Ceremonies has made my blood boil with NBC’s programing choices.

Before I rip into NBC, let me say that for me to be generally annoyed with Olympic coverage, NBC has had to work pretty hard at being bad. I did love watching it on the BBC, but I craved a primetime package, even if stuff wasn’t live. I am well-known for being an Olympics fanatic, and I don’t mind a dual focus on the sports and on the stories. I actually admitted in my blog post four years ago that I was going to miss not hearing Bob Costas. (For those that don’t know Bob Costas, he does not generally get rave reviews, so liking him is not something one usually advertises.) I am beginning to think that was homesickness speaking.  Also, on the whole, I don’t have a problem with a focus on American athletes; I think sports are more fun to watch when you have a dog in the fight and supporting someone from your country feels like an extension of supporting your city’s team. I know that NBC is there to make a profit, unlike the BBC, so drawing people in with Americans is part of the deal. Furthermore, I am pretty understanding of the time zone issues that need to be dealt with; as much as seeing sports live is the ideal, when the city is five to eight hours ahead, this can be difficult. Even with streaming video, many people (including myself) can’t necessarily access it during the work hours, and I think NBC would be foolish to NOT show events on tape delay in primetime.  Heck,  I can even get behind the idea that in a primetime slot, you will want to show more of the ‘big sports’ such as swimming and gymnastics.

So, with all those caveats in place, man, how bad has the NBC primetime coverage been! It started with the Opening Ceremonies where, as I am sure most of you are now aware, the network cut a 7/7 tribute in favor of an interview with Michael Phelps conducted by Ryan Seacrest. Yes, Ryan Seacrest, who may be okay when it comes to Top 40 music stuff, who feels very wrong at the Olympics. I get the need for commercials (again, this is network that isn’t supported by the government like the BBC), but to cut any actual content in favour of this was just shameful.

This interview easily leads straight into my  next complaint: Michael Phelps.  I was admittedly not a big Phelps fan heading into this Olympics; I feel he veers towards the arrogant arse side, but I understand he is an amazing Olympic athlete, and he does need to be covered. But the NBC Phelps-Hype-Machine may be the most annoying thing I have dealt with since the District Line. (So, really annoying.) It takes something to make me feel sorry for Ryan Lochte, who seems like a massive dude-bro, but when he won his first gold, the biggest story on NBC was that Phelps lost.

Moving on, with difficulty as I could dwell on this Phelps issue forever, is the fact that there must be many Americans who don’t realize that there are competitors in the Olympics that aren’t from the US. While seeing a diversity of athletes was one of my favourite parts of BBC coverage, as I said above, I don’t really mind NBC being pretty blatant homers. With American success in the pool and gymnastics, American athletes will play a large role. But, why must NBC show an interview with Phelp’s family (okay, I didn’t quite move on), instead of focusing on a great story of an athlete from a different country? Surely other athletes have heart tugging stories. Or, where is the feature on the Chinese dominance of table tennis? What about showing key gold medal winning performances each day, regardless of country. NBC has four hours each night: come on!

Let’s see what else? There is NBC’s clear confusion on what tense/time to use. Bob Costas used at least two different tenses the other night in one sentence. Either admit that everyone already knows the results or speak in the present tense  but don’t both. There is the ridiculous cutting up of events throughout the night, with a beam routine here, and then 45 minutes later, a bar routine there. What about the fact that apparently Beach Volleyball is worthy of primetime coverage, but only it is American women and only with several comments about bikinis? In fact, NBC so rarely shows other sports, that I was pretty confident the US Men won their volleyball match against Brasil. Not because I was spoiled, but because I knew NBC wouldn’t waste time on it if they didn’t. How about not getting to see all performances in a competition? For example, in the Women’s Gymnastics all-around final, show us all of the top group–there are only six performers–don’t edit it out to only show Americans and Russians. Of course that might mean losing a ridiculous Ryan Seacrest piece on social media (a new low for NBC), or one less piece on the Phelps/Lochte rivalry, or showing less than a million commercials.

There is also the streaming issue. If you don’t have a cable or satellite package, you can’t actually watch events live, which is ridiculous. There is no download option like the iPlayer if you can’t watch live, but want to see all performances. And yes, you can get a replay of some events, but for some, such as gymnastics if you don’t see it streaming you won’t be able to see all the performances. You are stuck with a replay of the NBC primetime coverage. There is also the issue of the actually quality of the streaming video. When I tried to watch some gymnastics live, my video kept disappearing.  This wasn’t a problem for me sitting in a dorm in 2008, it shouldn’t be a problem now.  I won’t go into the problems with commentators for some of the sports, but I will let Dvora Meyers on Deadspin do it. I know I am not the only one who has been annoyed about this coverage. There is a hashtag, #NBCfail on twitter, and from the AV Club reviews, I see there are other rants that I will enjoy reading once I post my own rant.

My hope is that NBC re-evaluates its concept of primetime coverage for the 2014 Winter Olympics; my fear is that NBC will double down and continue to give us crap coverage. They have shown no signs of changing based on recent comments, and there was that twitter dust-up. NBC says they are getting great ratings, so why change? Yet, I am feeling the fatigue of watching these games on NBC, and am losing some of the fun of the games. What is sad is that it really doesn’t have to be that way. I am off today and am watching some pretty decent coverage NBC has on its other networks. Coverage normally begins at 4 am, competitions are shown live, and there is a diversity of both events and athletes shown.  NBC really could have knocked these games out of the park. A robust and widely available streaming package and their live coverage could have truly complemented a primetime show. People like me, who actively try to avoid seeing results if unable to watch live, could decide to watch the primetime coverage or watch replays. Or both. All viewers would get a primetime show that treats viewers to great performances, regardless of country, longer sets of competition, and less pointless interviews. I guarantee people would watch; all I can guarantee now is that more and more people will be exploring ways to watch the Olympics anywhere but NBC. It could have been great, but instead, tonight we are getting a special, in primetime, that revisits the 1996 gold by the US Women’s Gymnastics Team. Instead of showing 2012 events, we are revisiting the 1996 ones. It makes sense on one level; 1996 was probably the last time NBC was actually a great network. What this Olympic coverage shows us it that it isn’t even a good one.

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1 Comment

  1. NBC is going to keep the rights for the 2014, 2016, 2018, and 2020 olympics?


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