I look forward to every Olympic Games. Every two years I bust out my Team USA gear and prepare to cheer for my country as I watch some amazing athletes push themselves to the limits for the chance to win gold. It’s one of the times I feel the most patriotic, the most connected to my countrymen and to those feeling the same around the world. Swimming, gymnastics and volleyball rank high on my to-watch list in the 2012 Olympics, but this year I have a new favorite sport--the bashing of NBC on the #NBCFail hashtag! Not only has reading this hashtag been as entertaining as the actual sports--it’s also extremely vindicating because it’s live!
The Twitterverse is rife with complaints about NBC’s tape delay of the opening ceremonies, the events, and about its decision to block the U.K. tribute to its 7/7 London subway bombing victims with an out- of-place Ryan Seacrest-Michael Phelps interview. Another hashtag #NBCDefense has popped up but there isn’t much going on there. Why? Because Americans have a legitimate reason to be angry.
So, what’s the issue? Why are Americans so mad? The real issue is about broken spirit and a loss of the feel of international unity, not about a simple tape delay issue. In fact, if you take it at face value, NBC’s decision to use a tape delay is probably both economically smart and a bit more convenient for people with a full time day job. I’m sure I’m going to get some flak for saying this but it’s true. Here’s the deal:
The Olympics are largely funded by sponsors and broadcasters who buy the rights to air Olympic coverage in their home country or use the logo on their products. The money that the International Olympic Committee receives is distributed to National Olympic Committees and the Olympic Organizing Committees -- they pay for stadiums, security, and those epic opening ceremonies we all enjoy along with a slew of other things. A huge chunk of the money that the IOC receives comes from NBCUniversal and American businesses that pay to use the Olympic logo. The IOC, and therefore our ability to partake in the Olympics, would be in serious jeopardy without that money.
The United States is the biggest TV market in the world. For the 2006 and 2008 Olympic Games, the IOC took in almost $2.6 billion in broadcast rights from around the world. NBC alone provided around $1.6 billion of that. For the 2010-2012 Olympic Games, NBC paid nearly $2.2 billion out of the $4 billion the IOC made from broadcast rights worldwide. The U.S. also happens to be the only developed country without a major public broadcaster. This means that advertisers pay the bills over at NBC (and at FOX, CBS, and ABC) whereas BBC in London (where they have live coverage of the games) is supported by fees paid by the viewers.
In order to pay that $2.2 billion bill and to make a profit, NBC has to maximize commercial revenue by grabbing as many eyeballs as possible. They do this by airing the most sought after sports during prime time, when most people are at home watching TV. The argument becomes: Does NBC serve its viewers, who watch and make up the ratings, or does NBC serve its advertisers, who pay the bills by having NBC make you watch their ads between races?
Right now, NBC serves those who pay the bills. And its approach is working. The ratings show that there were 40.7 million viewers for the London opening ceremony, and 28.7 million for the first night of prime time competition on Saturday. By comparison, the ratings for the Beijing opening ceremony in 2008 were 34.9 million viewers.
NBC is also streaming the Games live on the internet, but the catch is that you have to be a cable subscriber. You have to enter the username and password given to you by your cable provider to be able to access the live stream. Why can’t they just stream it for free? To pay for the exorbitant broadcasting rights they bought to air this year’s games, and probably to pay for the $4.4 billion they paid in rights to air the games between 2014 and 2020. Remember, if NBC hadn’t paid that $4.4 billion, the Games coming up in those years would not be what we know them as today--there simply wouldn’t be money for fireworks to shoot off London Bridge and around the Olympic Stadium.
The real reason we’re all mad at NBC is not because we’re delayed in seeing Michael Phelps come in at a shocking 4th place several hours after we learned the disappointing news on Twitter. The real reason we’re all mad at NBC is because their coverage has robbed us of the spirit of the Games. Rather than focus on patriotism and international unity, NBC has forced us to turn the conversation to profit and commercialism. NBC has forced us to see the overblown economics that has resulted in the “brand police.” While delivering a rude awakening, NBC has also robbed us of the opportunity to share a common experience with the world via television and the internet in a way that was not possible when the modern Olympics Games started in 1896.
The reason I find the hashtag #NBCFail so exciting is because it’s live, it’s happening right now as I type these words. The fact that angry audience members from around the country have the ability to tweet and tell NBC where they can put their crappy coverage in real time is the spirit that should be alive in the Olympic Games. It should be live. It should be a globally shared experience. But the bottom line for fans is that the Olympics are driven by money, not sports or the spirit of competition.