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August 13, 2012 • Editorials

For the Olympics, Good Ratings Encourage Poor Coverage

With each passing day my frustration with the Olympic coverage available to me grew, and as the Olympics close I wanted to express the feelings that will linger. Carly already wrote about how NBC is punishing viewers of regular broadcast TV, and also about how the focus on big-corporate sponsorship is hurting athletes in smaller sports who don’t use the big name gear.

I was drawn to several of the comments on Carly’s posts, talking about cord-cutting, using apps, and a general dissatisfaction with the quality and quantity of broadcasts. Let me add my voice to the chorus – as someone who remembers watching Nadia Comaneci score perfect 10s in 1976, I find NBC’s coverage appallingly bad.

In fact, let me list out the ways in which the coverage is abysmal:
– Prime Time TV coverage is just abysmal … but Carly already talked about that.
– The fact that you have to subscribe to cable to watch the NBC coverage on the internet seems … well, anti-competitive somehow. Like there is collusion or something.
– Further to that, there are SO MANY commercials in the streaming content that jumping from event to event means seeing even MORE ads than in Prime Time!

All of that is true and has been covered to death. But there are two things that ultimately bother me more than anything else: first I honestly believe that if Nadia Comaneci competed today we wouldn’t see her, and second based on ratings NBC is getting the message that they are doing fine.

What I mean by saying we wouldn’t see Nadia compete is that in my opinion the coverage I have seen on NBC on TV and their apps is so USA-centric that it is hard to believe that there are ~15,000 athletes rather than 1100 (the 529 from the USA and those competing against them). Aside from Usain Bolt and controversy, there has been so little featured coverage that I feel it goes beyond nationalistic and bias and reflects an attitude of near Xenophobia!

One thing I found stunning was that Usain Bolt actually stopped an interview in progress to show respect for other Olympians on the track getting their awards and the national anthem being played. It wasn’t his country, but that didn’t matter – he stopped and paid attention out of respect.

There was also a great story about the aftermath of a crash by Canadian Simon Whitfield that took out a couple of other Olympians. Rather than complain or otherwise voice the disappointment he must have felt, Costa Rican Olympian Leonardo Chaconsent a message to legendary triathlete Whitfield wishing him well and expressing joy just being able to compete alongside him and hoping they get to meet again in four years.

On our side of the pond, we have been shown how one of our elite gymnasts was apparently not impressed by ‘only’ winning the Silver medal … while there are some countries who show up every four years and have NEVER been to the podium!

The difference in expectations and the sense of entitlement is simply stunning. There is a girl from our area who ran the 5000m race, and there have been ‘Run, Molly, Run’ signs everywhere. What will the reaction be upon her return – joy for the Olympian, or ‘meh’ at the non-medal finish.

Is Bad Coverage Better than NO Coverage?

OK, and now for the last one – the backlash on Twitter against NBC has a hashtag (NBCFail, but there was also an article on Forbes saying that basically ‘good ratings justify NBC’s approach.

What?!?! That is basically like saying that the $900 million in box office returns for The Phantom Menace vindicated George Lucas – or the billions of DVDs of the original trilogy with Greedo shooting first, for that matter. Or countless other examples that selling loads of things or getting tons of viewers or whatever vindicate the creative vision. They do NOT.

What do the ratings say? That people WANT to see the Olympics and will tolerate just about anything to watch them. In fact, a recent Gallup poll says people want the Olympics Live and in Prime Time.

But NBC persists – they even say all of the mis-steps that have resulted in ‘spoilers’ and no surprises have actually HELPED ratings! Personally I know people who have used it to plan viewing, but that means less actual viewing time rather than more. As a result, I have little doubt that NBC will declare victory and continue doing the same thing in future Olympics.

Yet the rest of the world has seen better – most countries have unlimited viewing through YouTube without absurd cable/dish packaging and all of the other restrictions. And in the UK, the BBC has done a simply AMAZING job which has been called ‘bringing Olympic Coverage into the Future’!

How does the BBC air 24 live feeds?
Using the “red button” feature on their remote controls, viewers can switch to different BBC feeds that are being broadcast simultaneously. The BBC is airing a whopping 2,500 hours of live footage — the equivalent of about 100 days — over the course of two weeks. The red button feature is also available on the BBC’s website (for British internet users only) and as a smartphone app, which has been downloaded by 1.5 million people. “We wanted to give people every venue, from first thing in the morning to last thing at night,” Roger Mosey, the director of the BBC’s Olympics coverage, tells The Times.

Is it overwhelming to absorb as many as 24 different sporting options?
“Watching the vast array of events is like being at a party where you don’t know the guests,” says Kevin O’Sullivan at Britain’s The Mirror. But “suddenly you find yourself mysteriously gripped by ladies target shooting, handball, and the mesmerizingly repetitive canoe slalom contest.” BBC officials were worried that viewers would feel “paralyzed by choice,” says Nigel Farndale at The Telegraph, but they concluded that the preference for live sports is so pronounced that they could take the risk. The result has “revolutionized the way we watch the Games,” says Farndale. Instead of a network telling you an overarching Olympics “story,” the viewer determines what the Olympics is about. The BBC even offers a “digital dashboard” that allows viewers to customize their viewing schedules.

Has it been successful?
Yes. “Through the first six days of the Games,” says Pfanner, “45.4 million Britons had tuned in to at least 15 minutes of BBC’s coverage.” Around 17 million Britons have used at least one of the red button streams. A record 17 million people tuned in to watch home-favorite distance runner Mo Farah win the 10,000-meter race, followed closely by the 16 million who witnessed Jessica Ennis triumph in the heptathlon. The BBC website reached a record peak audience of 8 million, and has had 29 million requests for its interactive videos.

One interesting thing I read was a proposal for NBC to leave all of those ‘up close and personal’ moments to sponsors, since they are already doing it – and doing a much better job than NBC. That would leave NBC more time for … well, sports!

As I finish writing this a really cool image was posted here that shows that at least the athletes really ‘get’ the Olympic spirit … it needs no further explanation:


What do you think? Do you think that our USA-centric coverage and expectations have gone too far?

4 Responses to " For the Olympics, Good Ratings Encourage Poor Coverage "

  1. JDTagish says:

    I have to just chime in, on McKayla’s pic there – she showed herself to be a consummate sportsman, and having a momentary expression of self disappointment, not because she “only” got a silver, but because she had not done her best. Frustrated with HERSELF, because she has nailed that vault countless times, except for the one where it counted, not for her team, but for her alone, that she failed. After spending years preparing for that literal 15 seconds, and then to land on your bottom has to feel horrible. And yet, she showed up for every interview, congratulated the winner and explained that she was not the best vaulter in the world, on that day. She smiled through it, and vowed to do better next time. What more can you expect from an athlete?

    I think McKayla’s little grimace, which probably was over in a flash, but got caught by one of a zillion cameras is understandable. At least as much as other athletes who got caught on camera picking their nose, picking wedgies, adjusting their privates, or volunteering info on peeing in the pool. (Eww!) I think she showed a ton of sportsmanship, and the use of that photo to illustrate an “only silver” attitude might be a little misplaced.I don’t think her attitude was “only silver” but more, “if only I had landed on my feet.”

    Compare her attitude to Morgan Uceny, who fell in her final, and then literally pounded the ground like a 2 year old, and then ran away crying and gave no interviews at all, never congratulated the winners, and left the village without a word. She didn’t even bother to actually get up and finish the race. Even if she came in last, she could have finished, and showed herself a sportsman, but she let her temper and frustration get the best of her, and she’s twice McKayla’s age and acted half of McKayla’s. I understand being p**sed about it, I would be too! And she’s getting older as Olympians go, and this might have been her last chance at a medal. But giving up and not even attempting to finish while having a fist pounding tantrum on the field is inexcusable, even if it was your last chance.

  2. JDTagish says:

    I have to just chime in, on McKayla’s pic there – she showed herself to be a consummate sportsman, and having a momentary expression of self disappointment, not because she “only” got a silver, but because she had not done her best. Frustrated with HERSELF, because she has nailed that vault countless times, except for the one where it counted, not for her team, but for her alone, that she failed. After spending years preparing for that literal 15 seconds, and then to land on your bottom has to feel horrible. And yet, she showed up for every interview, congratulated the winner and explained that she was not the best vaulter in the world, on that day. She smiled through it, and vowed to do better next time. What more can you expect from an athlete?

    I think McKayla’s little grimace, which probably was over in a flash, but got caught by one of a zillion cameras is understandable. At least as much as other athletes who got caught on camera picking their nose, picking wedgies, adjusting their privates, or volunteering info on peeing in the pool. (Eww!) I think she showed a ton of sportsmanship, and the use of that photo to illustrate an “only silver” attitude might be a little misplaced.I don’t think her attitude was “only silver” but more, “if only I had landed on my feet.”

    Compare her attitude to Morgan Uceny, who fell in her final, and then literally pounded the ground like a 2 year old, and then ran away crying and gave no interviews at all, never congratulated the winners, and left the village without a word. She didn’t even bother to actually get up and finish the race. Even if she came in last, she could have finished, and showed herself a sportsman, but she let her temper and frustration get the best of her, and she’s twice McKayla’s age and acted half of McKayla’s. I understand being p**sed about it, I would be too! And she’s getting older as Olympians go, and this might have been her last chance at a medal. But giving up and not even attempting to finish while having a fist pounding tantrum on the field is inexcusable, even if it was your last chance.

  3. The commercials on the web site are particularly appalling–I have frequently had to endure a 60 second commercial for a one minute (or less) film clip. Programming around that would be ridiculously easy, since they also have 15 second and 30 second commercials available. The fact that they don’t speaks volumes. “We’re the only game in town, so screw you.”

    Speaking of monopoly, I have to think that if people in the U.S. were given a choice between the NBC coverage and that of the BBC, NBC would get torched in the ratings.

    I’m not as angry about the time delay, but for people who are unplugged and watch on their computers, where’s the logic in making *them* wait? I’m up and at my laptop at 8am every day (CDT); why can’t I watch the events that are going on live at that time, if any? Or at least the most recent ones, rather than having to wait the next day to see a clip?

    And of course the fact that you have to have cable or satellite subscription to watch entire events online is absolutely absurd. How much money is NBC leaving on the table because of that?

    Since 9/11, the level of jingoism by the American press has been absurd. And in the Olympics, that insane. How many of your Olympic memories are of someone *not* from the US? I remember watching Nadia. Olga. Franz Klammer’s absolutely insane and riviting downhill run at Innsbruck. Midori Ito at Calgary. Etc. etc. etc. Many of the most riveting performances are *not* by Americans–let us see them, for Pete’s sake

    Also: I miss Jim McKay.

  4. The commercials on the web site are particularly appalling–I have frequently had to endure a 60 second commercial for a one minute (or less) film clip. Programming around that would be ridiculously easy, since they also have 15 second and 30 second commercials available. The fact that they don’t speaks volumes. “We’re the only game in town, so screw you.”

    Speaking of monopoly, I have to think that if people in the U.S. were given a choice between the NBC coverage and that of the BBC, NBC would get torched in the ratings.

    I’m not as angry about the time delay, but for people who are unplugged and watch on their computers, where’s the logic in making *them* wait? I’m up and at my laptop at 8am every day (CDT); why can’t I watch the events that are going on live at that time, if any? Or at least the most recent ones, rather than having to wait the next day to see a clip?

    And of course the fact that you have to have cable or satellite subscription to watch entire events online is absolutely absurd. How much money is NBC leaving on the table because of that?

    Since 9/11, the level of jingoism by the American press has been absurd. And in the Olympics, that insane. How many of your Olympic memories are of someone *not* from the US? I remember watching Nadia. Olga. Franz Klammer’s absolutely insane and riviting downhill run at Innsbruck. Midori Ito at Calgary. Etc. etc. etc. Many of the most riveting performances are *not* by Americans–let us see them, for Pete’s sake

    Also: I miss Jim McKay.

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