Every four years, we are privileged to take part in and witness an event that brings the world together. And no, I'm not talking about the Olympics. I'm not talking about the World Cup or even a presidential election. I'm not even talking about leap years.
Of course, I'm talking about being angry at NBC tape delaying the most important Olympic events and airing them in primetime.
Yes, every four years, seemingly the entire country goes up in arms over NBC's Olympic tape delay strategy where they use their exclusive Olympic rights to save elite events like swimming, gymnastics, and track & field for the primetime jackpot. The practice is nothing new, and even goes back to ABC's Roone Arledge in the 1960s as he made the Olympics into the television event it is today. This strategy was continued by NBC, shaped by Dick Ebersol, and remains till this day.
But we need to face reality – the Olympics aren't about the sports. They are about the stories. They always have been.
That's what the primetime telecast is for. The primetime telecast is the biggest stories, the biggest stars, the biggest ratings, and the biggest ad dollars. Whether it's live or tape delay. The primetime telecast is what draws in the millions and millions and millions of viewers that couldn't care less about sports at any other time of the year. Those viewers that aren't waking up at 7 AM because they can't wait to see Spain and China play women's water polo. The primetime broadcast isn't aimed at the 25 year old blogger or tweeter. The primetime broadcast is aimed at the 45-55 year old couple who find Jordyn Wieber crying on air to be a captivating human interest story.
That's simply the truth. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but NBC's tape delay strategy is working. The Opening Ceremonies was the biggest on record with 40.7 million people. (Why everyone was so upset about watching what amounts to the world's largest variety show on tape delay still escapes me.) Day 1 primetime ratings were up 14% from Beijing and the most watched ever. Day 2 primetime ratings were up 2% over Beijing and the best of a non-US Olympics.
But, that doesn't mean NBC's tape delay strategy is all poppies and sunshine. Of course the tape delay strategy is out-of-date and a relic of the past in a social media age. Of course it's frustrating. While we of the social media crazy crowd certainly aren't the majority, we're a growing sect of the population. As Richard Sandomir pointed out, the #NBCFail meme actually means something this year. The @NBCDelayed Twitter feed has 5 figure followers as a parody account. The cries against tape delay are louder and more numerous than ever before. To expect a large chunk of Olympic viewers to stay off the internet, smart phones, Twitter, and Facebook from 11:30 AM ET till primetime so as to not spoil the men's gymnastics team final is unrealistic.
All I ask for is a viable live viewing option. It appeared NBC was going to provide that this year with their live online airing of every sport, every event, every medal. It's a brilliant strategy. Save your primetime jackpot and also give the hardcore, gotta see it live fans what they want. Unfortunately, NBC's live streaming has been marred by buffering and bandwidth issues that have been heavily criticized. My stream has gone in and out, but I've been lucky compared to many others in terms of not missing the major events. If you're going to put all your live eggs into the online basket, you have to make sure it's secure.
So what's the solution? There's a sensible answer that could serve everyone. Air the premier live events on your cable sports network trying to get off the ground. NBC Sports Network has been labelled the home of Team USA these Olympics, but why not make it the home of all the live events we have to see? The actual amount of events worth complaining about in tape delay is actually relatively small – swimming, gymnastics, track, and maybe a few others. Air those live on NBC Sports Network and direct anyone who wants to see major live events there. Carry on with the tape delay primetime television miniseries event of the summer, but provide us with a viable live viewing option. Sure, there are other issues like risking available highlights once an event is aired on television, but there's already so much information out there when events happen live there are hardly any more excuses in that department. If Brian Williams is spoiling events on the NBC Nightly News, then it's well past time we pretended these events are happening in a vacuum. Give NBC Sports Network a huge boost and protect primetime for those people that are only watching in primetime anyways.
In the end, both sides have to come to grips with what's really happening. The tidal wave of individuals on Twitter complaining about tape delay must realize there's a bigger picture out there to NBC's business of airing the Olympics and tape delay strategy. NBC has to realize the tape delay strategy of the 1960s or the 1990s can't work effectively in the 2010s. There needs to be a change in NBC's tape delay approach to provide a live option for fans, especially if live online streaming can't be done seamlessly.
The good news in all this? In 2016, the Olympics in Rio will be only one hour ahead of eastern time. Can't wait.