NBC has made it through the first week of the 2014 Winter Olympics without #NBCFail becoming a national phenomenon. In that regard, the peacock's coverage is an improvement over the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. More events are being shown live on television (including the full figure skating events that have drawn rave reviews for the work of Terry Gannon, Tara Lipinski, and Johnny Weir) and the online buffering issues that plagued online coverage 2 years ago have been minimized.
But there have been occasions in Sochi when NBC's primetime packaging and tape delay strategy are still worthy of condemnation. The most glaring example is the withdrawal from the men's figure skating competition of Russian icon Evgeni Plushenko and NBC's willingness to play dumb for their primetime audience.
Plushenko withdrew from the competition just before 10 AM ET on Thursday with a back injury. And yet, during NBC's primetime coverage which began at 8 PM ET, the network was promoting his appearance in the men's figure skating event knowing full well that he wouldn't be competing. A full 10 hours later, NBC acted like Plushenko would still be involved in the competition, even running a promo for him. The AP called out NBC for the game they were playing:
"We can deal with NBC's ''plausibly live'' format presenting competition unfolding on its tape-delayed broadcasts. It felt wrong, however, for Russian figure skating legend Evgeni Plushenko's sudden retirement because of injury before performing Thursday. The broadcast presented a pre-taped intro about Plushenko as if he were about to start skating, and then came his ''surprise'' withdrawal. By this point, it was already 10 hours old and the story of the day. It should have been covered in a more straightforward manner."
With a weak American field of medal contenders, the Olympic veteran skating in his home country was the arguably the main attraction for the men's figure skating program. His withdrawal could theoretically have a negative affect on viewership.
But just how far should NBC be able to go in preserving their primetime storytelling at the expense of factually and truthfully covering the Olympics? There's no tangible line for NBC here, but it's clear in choosing to fabricate the chances of seeing Plushenko skating when they knew he wouldn't, the network went too far.
At worst, NBC was flat out lying to viewers. At best, they were offering up "plausibly live" Olympic coverage…. while still lying to viewers.
What makes the twisting of the Plushenko narrative to fit their primetime coverage worse is the fact that NBC knows many people are watching at night while being well aware of what has happened live during the day. Earlier in these Olympics, NBC Olympics Executive Producer Jim Bell flaunted the fact that many fans were still watching in primetime regardless of whether they knew the outcome or not.
“For a lot of people, they know and they still want to see it,” Bell said. “For a significant amount of people, they really don’t know, and I know that might seem odd to a lot of us who are strapped like an EKG machine to our Twitter feeds and whatever other devices or sites we’re getting constant information, but that’s not everybody.”
What would Bell say to the Olympic fans that were well aware of Plushenko's withdrawal while NBC was leading them by the nose? It's a disingenuous decision from NBC and insulting to the scores of people watching that were aware of what actually happened earlier in the day.
There's showing Olympic events on tape delay and then there's fabricating your own stories to meet your needs as a network. This isn't covering a sporting event, this is creating a scripted television miniseries. If NBC is willing to present Plushenko's withdrawal as a shocking event 10 hours after it actually happened, what's to prevent them from presenting a fourth placed American finish at the skeleton as a gold medal run? What's to prevent them from twisting and altering the truth to tickle whatever fancy they'd like?
NBC will always show the Olympics in primetime on a tape delayed basis, no matter how much true sports fans want to see all live action. But the least NBC can do while tape delaying primetime Olympic coverage is to be truthful with viewers and not betray the facts.