Blake Snow

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You can’t look away: Here’s why people still watch NBC’s criticized Olympic coverage

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A lot of rabid olympic spectators in America are understandably upset. NBC has spoiled the tape-delayed results on more than one occasion, either with an evening newscast or even a promotional commercial in between events which announce interviews with eventual gold medalists that still haven’t won on tape delay.

Worse still for cord-cutters like me, authentication of a cable subscription is required to watch events live online, even though NBC is a free broadcast channel. Even still, the live stream app reportedly crashes a lot.

At the same time, the number of people watching NBC’s olympic prime-time and tape-delayed coverage is off the charts. Record ratings even. NBC’s tape delayed approach is even boosting they’re revenue, so they’re approach is obviously working, even if it upsets a lot of people.

So why is everyone so pissed off, and by everyone I really mean just a loud vocal minority?

I talked with a TV analyst this week and this is what he had to say: “The one constant of Olympic TV is people inevitably getting upset. Unlike regular TV sports, where you just show games live, Olympic coverage is different: you pick some sports, leave some out, decide how much time to spend on interviews, etc. Consequently, just about everybody has a complaint about every Olympics, London is no different.”

In fact, the complaints are fewer in number today than in the past. It’s just that pithy tweets and whiny Facebook posts have amplified the noise of a vocal minority. “There used to be lots, lots more complaints before there was so much cable coverage,” he told me. “Used to be that lots of Olympic sports literally never showed up on TV. Now NBC uses the Olympic TV feed and puts them on cable/online and you can at least see them.”

A lot of the uproar about NBC’s coverage is the tape delay to fit the airing within the prime time viewing window, when Americans get home from work in the evenings. Broadcasting the London games live could only happen during the workday, thereby reducing the number of eyeballs NBC could resell to advertisers.

In other words, tape delay doesn’t work for live sports, but it’s working for the olympics. How you ask? “The Olympic primetime audience is very different than a sports audience,” the analysts says. “A month from now, you could put swimming or diving on TV, and it would get tiny ratings. No one would care. The reason: Lots of Olympic primetime viewers don’t otherwise watch sports at all. Olympic athletes aren’t in anybody fantasy leagues, people don’t bet on them. That’s why NBC primetime can be produced as a sort of reality show, not sports.”

In fact, a recent report by Time Magazine bears this out. Women, the largest group of primetime TV watchers in America, actually love watching the Olympics, but they largely tune out other sporting events unless they’re husbands force them to. In that sense, Olympics are not really perceived as sports by the majority audience (women), and so NBC can get away with tape delaying it.

“Bottom line,” the analyst says, “even if you don’t like NBC’s coverage, if you’re watching, you count in the ratings. Worse than lots of viewers being upset would be lots of viewers who don’t care.”

The workaround I’ve found? I avoid news and sports headlines during the Olympics so as not to spoil the results. Works for me. But then again, I’m on a crazy lean news diet and couldn’t be happier.