I love the Olympics. It’s my favorite sporting event, beating the World Cup in a photo finish. The Olympics have a special place in my heart because it combines human dedication, intensity, joy, humanity, and drama. I grew up in Germany, where all the events are shown live, where I was able to appreciate the strategy and tactics of weightlifting, the slowly evolving drama of the 50 kilometres race walk, the nail-biting shooting events, the nerve-wrecking archery events and the chaos theory aka cycling road race playing out in the streets of the host city. If there was a way to watch the Olympics for 24 hours live, I would watch it for 25 hours.
Since I moved to the US, my feelings towards the Olympics has dramatically changed and that’s because NBC never understood the Olympic spirit. The athletes are mere content to further NBC’s monetary and corporate goals. While the whole world was watching the Opening Ceremonies live from London, the US viewers were held prisoners by NBC to wait until they were ready for us. That meant a time delay of 8 hours of the West Coast, and it was so worth it: It allowed Matt Lauer to link the nation of Madagascar to the animated movies, reminding viewers that most of the athletes marching in the ceremony would not win a medal, and talking over the many, many musical interludes. It was also a good occasion to showcase the ignorance of the hosts when Lauer and Viera blew off a tribute to Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the man widely considered to be the inventor of the world wide web.
“If you haven’t heard of him, we haven’t either,” Viera said. “Google him,” Matt added moments later. And, so the hashtag #ShutUpMattLauer was born. Oh, he didn’t stop there: He connected Kazakhstan with Borat, called Luxembourg “a small, central European country”, and shared his belief that Rwanda bounced nicely back from that little annoyance some call genocide. Way to lift the Olympic spirit.
To give good old Matt a little history lesson: The idea of the Olympics is to bring the youth of the world together. As Pierre de Coubertin said (Meredith, google him): “The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”
That’s the Olympic spirit. Not your flag-waving, US-centric orgy to market your mediocre fall shows. Not your shameful cut of the Olympic tribute to terrorism victim and replacing it with a vapid Michael Phelps interview by Mr. Hair Seacrest. The reason for it: “An NBC Sports spokesperson responding to the criticism says that it is their policy to shorten for both broadcast constraints and for the sensibilities of the local audience.” I guess NBC believes we want to be force-feed intellectual emptiness and don’t appreciate emotional moments of non-US nations. Thanks, NBC.
Day 2 was even better when the social web exploded after the Ryan Lochte win/Michael Phelps defeat and the majority of Americans had to wait another 10 hours to finally see the event. There was glimmer of hope when cable subscribers were able to sign up for online coverage. “We show everything live”, NBC promised. Yes, they do! But the majority of events are just shown without any commentary or graphics to show where we are in the competition. It’s not really that exciting to watch a parade of athletes competing when you have no clue what the current objectives are. It’s like watching a basketball game without knowing the score. Or a baseball game without knowing what inning it is. The swimming competition was shown live and I enjoyed it: All six races were done in 1 hour, minor interruptions, pure joy. And, the Gold online channel is what the Olympics are about: This Sunday morning alone I watched fencing, skeet shooting, basketball, cycling road race and kayaking. All in one hour.
NBC has a good argument to make: NBC has to maximize commercial revenue, which means maximizing prime time viewership, to recoup the billions paid for rights to broadcast. Billions that pay for the event and the corrupt pockets (allegedly) of IOC members. And, some might argue: the ratings were huge. A false argument. The avid fans (like me) will do anything to watch the events live. And they will sit through a repeat at prime time with their spouse enjoying great Olympic moments together. Who says that fans tweeting about the North Korean unbelievable upset in 56kg weightlifting wouldn’t entice other fans with no interest in weightlifting to enjoy the moment as well? Why not offer two layers of online viewing: one for free and one as a pay service? I would gladly pay quite a lot of money to access all events at my convenience, not based on a prime time schedule.
The real problem is that NBC and other media still try to preserve old business models in a new reality. They think that experimenting with new business models will cost them a lot of money. My argument is that the lack of experiments will lead to their ultimate demise. You can’t imprison customers anymore, we are way more advanced than you think. It’s not that hard to find ways to completely disengage from NBC’s effort and enjoy the games through other means.
Ultimately, I blame the IOC. Their greed has changed the games permanently. The spirit is still there, the athletes still give all of us hope for the future of humanity. But the overblown economics of the games makes it harder for each us to enjoy special moments.
P.S.: In case you’re wondering if NBC cares: