Monday, July 30, 2012

NBC's 48-year-old Olympic playbook

Comcast division NBC is being blasted for how it's broadcasting the 2012 London Summer Olympics. Despite broadcasting events on NBC and its Spanish-language Telemundo broadcast network, cable networks NBC Sports Network, MSNBC, CNBC, Bravo and two networks started specifically for the Olympics, as well as online, NBC couldn't find any place to show the opening ceremonies live as they happened. Instead, they were delayed by three hours for broadcast in the U.S.'s Eastern and Central time zones--and the events that U.S. viewers saw were edited. Viewers on the Pacific Coast were forced to wait another three hours to see the ceremonies.

NBC is tape-delaying its coverage of most events that it thinks U.S. viewers will be interested in to "prime time" hours, in order to maximize advertising revenues. That decision, along with an almost total focus on U.S. athletes, has led to an initial barrage of complaints by viewers on Twitter, followed by similar complaints on websites and in newspapers. NBC spokespeople and executives have either dismissed the complaints or pedantically reminded commenters that most events are being streamed live on the Internet. And yes, the events are covered live on the web, as long as you can prove that you subscribe to a participating cable, satellite or IPTV video service provider, and providing that the stream doesn't freeze up mid-event. NBC lards the web streams with plenty of commercials, so it can't claim that it has to limit viewership to only those who subscribe to a multichannel video service. (Or, perhaps being owned by Comcast has something to do with it.)

Now, a U.S. editor for the U.K.'s Independent newspaper has been banned from Twitter, ostensibly because he tweeted the email address of an NBC executive. NBC admitted that it filed the complaint against the editor, Guy Adams, although anyone with an IQ above breathing can figure out the email address for any NBCUniversal employee through Google. I can just imagine the drone in NBC's corporate communications department saying "Now we've got 'em!" after seeing the tweet go out. (Update, August 1, 2012: It was actually a drone at Twitter who found the tweet, contacted NBC and told them how to file the complaint. Then, the mindless drone at NBC filed the complaint and rubbed their hands in glee. I made up the part about rubbing their hands in glee.) The only problem is that, as Reuters' Felix Salmon pointed out, that the Twitter rule covers "non-public, personal email addresses," neither of which applies to the address that Guy Adams tweeted--it's a corporate, public email address.

NBC's response to the fracas has been uninformed, manipulative and dismissive--but that's just a knee-jerk reaction, not the real problem. The real problem is the game book that NBC's playing with, a game book written by Roone Arledge in 1964 when ABC first broadcast the Innsbruck, Austria Winter Olympics. Tape and film from that first ABC Olympics had to be flown to New York for broadcast. Over the 20 years that ABC held rights to the Olympics, Arledge introduced the policy of tape-delaying and editing opening and closing ceremonies. Even after it was possible to broadcast live from anywhere in the world, Arledge continued to tape-delay events and ceremonies for broadcast in prime time. To attract more female viewers, he came up with the "up close and personal" concept of taped background packages on selected athletes designed to generate human interest. Event coverage focused on the performance of U.S. athletes, and created controversies even when none existed.

I'm not dumping on Arledge: He's one of the fathers of American sports broadcasting, and ABC's coverage of the kidnapping of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympic games, most of which was reported by ABC's sportscasters, not newspeople, was the birth of American television sports journalism and one of the most honored events in American television history. What Arledge did was right for the available technology and the times. The problem is that Arledge stopped running ABC Sports in 1986. The Internet didn't exist as anything but an academic curiosity when he retired, but with the exception of offering real-time event video streaming, NBC is doing the same things that Arledge did in 1964--just more of it, on more channels.

Roone Arledge died in 2002 at the age of 71. If he were still alive today, I think that he's tell NBC's management the following: "Times have changed, and so should you."
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