Sports

Is NBC's Olympic Coverage Broken?

USA and Canada fans cheer at Sunday night's hockey game.

hide captionThese fans are pretty excited about that USA-Canada hockey game Sunday night. NBC went with ice dancing.

Paul Drinkwater/NBC

Let us put aside for a moment the rah-rah, "Go Team USA" focus of the NBC coverage that often bugs viewers who would like a more global view of the Olympics. Let us also set aside sport-specific beefs, like the way Scott Hamilton's groaning has gotten completely out of hand when he's calling figure skating, or the way the curling announcers make it sound like only a three-year-old wouldn't know precisely how to win every single game with ease, because they certainly could.

The mere structure of the NBC coverage has left a great deal to be desired this time around, and it came to a head last night when they shuffled the much-anticipated USA-Canada hockey game off to MSNBC, in part to use NBC as a showcase for probably the least anticipated of the figure skating events: ice dancing. (Along with some speed skating, bobsled, and the men's super-G, which happened earlier in the day — oh, and the much-hyped ski cross event.)

The basic problem with NBC's coverage is that they haven't improved the fundamentals of the coverage in spite of massive changes in the way people take in content. The prime-time coverage is largely as it's always been: a few events (including figure skating) are heavily showcased, a few other events (most skiing and speed skating fall into this category) are usually shown in an abbreviated format regular viewers instantly recognize as "USA-Plus" (meaning you see the Americans, plus a few other people who are relevant because they either do very well or wipe out spectacularly), and two events — hockey and curling — are shown as complete events, but they're shoved off to cable.

West-coast residents have been particularly incensed that they wait an additional three hours after the East coast gets whatever "live" coverage there actually is in prime time, even though they are in the time zone where the Olympics actually are. What this means is that even if NBC is showing "live" coverage of its big events in New York, which is across the continent from Vancouver, it delays them three hours for Seattle, which is less than three hours south of Vancouver.

The "spoiler" problem and the future, after the jump.

Because what NBC perceives to be the high-profile events are frequently shoved into the evening, the ones that happen earlier in the day are dealt a particular blow. This has particularly plagued some of the skiing events, where NBC chooses to sit on the tape of the events for hours and hours, during which time other news outlets inevitably report on them (see the recent discussion from the NPR ombudsman about why news organizations can't really ignore news events just because somebody else is withholding the tape from viewers rather than airing it).

With the hockey game last night, everyone knew it was going to be an important game, and if you were anywhere near Twitter, you knew that it was whipping fans into an absolute frenzy. NBC eventually cut over to show about the last 30 seconds, but by then, the opportunity had been missed.

This just isn't the way people follow ... anything, really, at this point. At one time, you could broadcast events hours after they happened, and you'd have a reasonable chance that people could live in a bubble while they were waiting. That is not the world we live in anymore. The fantasy that is indulged when Bob Costas speaks breathlessly about an upcoming ski race where he already knows exactly what happened is no longer even a fragile fantasy; it's a blatant fiction that everyone knows about.

Naturally, NBC wants to kick the big events into prime-time for ratings reasons, and it's hard to argue with their ratings successes for these Olympics, which have been massive. Nevertheless, they're clinging to a broadcast model that's not only on its last legs — it's on the last toe of the last leg. This isn't Wide World Of Sports — people don't want to wait around for when your big sports show happens to take place.

Self-scheduling is the rule, at this point. It's harder and harder to tell people when they will watch things, and in what form. I can't prove it, but my sense is that part of the reason so many of us have taken to watching curling is that you can see entire matches, without the break-ins from Costas and the cutaways to other sports.

There's probably too much action in a set of Olympics for absolutely everything to be shown top-to-bottom, and perhaps that would be boring, anyway. But if the broadcast networks who cover this stuff don't find a way to stop pretending it's still 1976, where an event happens when the person who owns the broadcast rights tells you it happens, they're going to wind up being left in the dust by whatever manipulator of technology figures out how to do it better.

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