Sunday, August 17, 2008

"WHAT UP?! Media" NBC Olympic Coverage Week 1: All Phelps, All the Time

Thanks to Michael Phelps, week 1 of the Olympics has been a primetime success on NBC. But swimming is now over, which means no Phelps, and no more live competition in primetime this week.

Let me correct myself, there will be some live coverage this week. But it pales in comparison to having the swimming finals shown live in primetime, even if the athletes being shown live this week are sexy, well-toned beach volleyball players.

NBC paid over $900 million dollars to obtain broadcasting rights to air the Olympic Games in the United States. When you're paying a significant part of the IOC members' salary, it is likely that you're going to get what you want, including scheduling marquee finals for the morning. NBC was able to convince Olympic organizers to hold the finals of the swimming competition in the morning so that it can be shown live in primetime here in the United States. In addition, NBC also was able to get the team and individual all-around finals in artistic gymnastics and beach volleyball matches to take place in the morning for primetime viewing.

All this rescheduling paid off for NBC as Michael Phelps single-handedly turned a multi-million dollar investment into a profit for NBC and their parent company General Electric. The lure for viewers to witness history in the making each night was a money maker for NBC. On most nights of the first week, primetime ratings beat out the respective nights during the Olympics in Athens four years ago. The most likely reason for this success? Live competition.

Speaking of live, that term can only refer to those viewers watching in the eastern and central time zones. Viewers in the west coast had to wait three hours after the live competition was aired on the east coast. And even though the competition was clearly taped, NBC taunted viewers by keeping up the "LIVE" sign at the top right corner of the screen. Then later in the week, after rumors spread that NBC would broadcast Phelps's historic eighth race live in all time zones, the network shot those rumors down and kept their stand that viewers in the west coast would have to watch the competition that was live on the East Coast in primetime.

There are two things wrong with this concept. One is that several events that were airing live on the east Coast actually took place late at night in the east. If NBC had broadcasted the events live in all time zones, gymnastics and swimming would have taken place in primetime on the West Coast anyway. It's bad enough that those who had work the next morning on the east coast had to stay up until 1AM in the morning to find out the results of the women's individual all-around in gymnastics. Why make viewers on the west coast go through the same thing?

Second, it's just plain wrong to tape delay sports, especially when half of the country is watching the event live. NBC took a "NBC Nightly News" or an even better example, an "American Idol" approach to broadcasting these Olympic Games in primetime. Those on the east can watch the nightly news or American idol live, but those on the west will be watching the taped version. While that may work for events like American idol where you'll want to actually see the show, no matter if it is live or taped, sports and the Olympics don't work the same way. But NBC treated the Olympics as an entertainment event that draws advertisers rather than a sporting event.

East or west, everyone will in the same boat this week as most of the primetime coverage on NBC will be taped, including all track and field finals, with the exception of the men's marathon, to be aired live on Saturday night. Only BMX racing and beach volleyball will be aired live in primetime, and like last week, live only to the east coast. As far as the track and field and gymnastics finals that will be aired this week, all of those events will have already happened approximately 12 hours before they are broadcast to the American audience.

What this means is possible lower ratings for the network, with results of the track and field finals available on the internet well before they are aired. In fact, we may see ratings similar to that of the Sydney Olympic games, when all of the events aired on NBC were taped. While the limited number of events that will be aired live may help draw ratings, don't expect results similar to last week's shows. NBC and America does not have a big superstar like Michael Phelps to attract ratings this week, and if the United States ends up not medalling in many events on the track or in gymnastics, then NBC is likely to beg Phelps to swim live in primetime, even if the competition is over.

The good news is that online coverage has been amazing. Though many of the big sports are not being streamed live, the offerings that has are sufficient enough to pass the time and has provided excellent quality. The technology that NBC is using in streaming coverage has produced clear cut video and the use of live blogging helps viewers get interactive with experts that are providing comments on the event.

Beijing 2008 has proved to be an Olympics of transition for NBC in terms of delivering media to a hungry American audience. While the primetime trends of tape delay remain the same, the use of live and online coverage mean the best is yet to come in Olympics coverage. We'll just have to see what Week 2's ratings will hold for the big Olympic monopoly network.

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