Kate Bulkley, Media Analyst.

Olympic-sized cock-up for NBC

By Kate Bulkley

Broadcast News

Share |

For Broadcast August 09, 2012

US broadcaster’s coverage won’t win any medals, says Kate Bulkley.

You would think that screening the Olympic Games would be a godsend. The whole world – more than 200 countries – competes in all manner of sports; you have heroes of all nations and extremes of joy and pain that fill every hour of programming. What could go wrong?

Well, if you’re in the US, as I am at the moment, and tune into Olympic broadcaster NBC, suddenly you’re giving thanks for the BBC like never before. While the Beeb receives record audiences and all-round praise, NBC is taking a hammering.

It started at the opening ceremony, which I watched live and in full. Or so I thought. I felt like I was in remedial geography class listening to the NBC commentators reading, without a hint of irony, their facts and figures sheets on some nations they clearly thought obscure. You could hear the ‘what is this?’ in the voice of the US host explaining what GOSH stood for during the NHS segment of the opening ceremony. At least Mary Poppins and JK Rowling were more familiar.

Plus I didn’t realise at the time that an anodyne interview with US swimmer Michael Phelps was substituting for the tribute to the London bomb victims of 7/7. And if I hear NBC host Bob Costas say another word about beach volleyball, I’ll happily stand in front of the javelin throwers and let them take aim.

NBC thought that because it paid $1.2bn (£760m) for the exclusive rights to London 2012, it had carte blanche. But it seemed to forget that this is the first Twitter Olympics, and no broadcaster can hide things to suit itself. So it was a blooper of mammoth proportions that when Olympic icon Usain Bolt won his gold medal at 9.50pm UK time on Sunday, NBC was showing the American water polo team live. It did provide the 100 metre race live on its website, but it delayed the TV coverage for a staggering six hours to put it in US primetime. Bolt could almost have caught a flight from Heathrow and been at NBC’s New York headquarters before anyone in the US saw his gold medal performance on network television.

Yes, traffic to the NBC website has increased fourfold versus the Beijing Olympics and two thirds of NBC’s coverage has been live rather than tape-delayed, but when you don’t capture the spirit of the games with races such as Bolt’s magnificent run, then why bother? This is the channel that has screened Breakfast at Wimbledon for many years so US tennis fans don’t have to wait for tape delay from the championships. Why should the Olympics not have the same integrity?

Of course, the answer is primetime ad rates. Under-fire rookie Olympics exec producer Jim Bell says there will be more live coverage on NBC for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, but Brazil is only one hour ahead of US east coast time, so that’s a bit of a cop-out.

Better questions are: will America show its audience the ‘real and live’ 2016 Olympics rather than the ‘US-only’ version in the wake of the power of the web? And will Jim Bell still have his job at NBC in four years’ time? The answers to these questions have been tape-delayed until a future issue of Broadcast – but stay tuned for an update on the US beach volleyball team.

Columns Menu