Many sports bloggers and friends have taken up the cause of "NBC FAIL" this past week as it pertains to the Winter Olympics. (The greater cause of "NBC FAIL" as it pertains to the rest of the network is a subject for another time.) NBC has run nearly all of its events tape delayed in prime time, diced up with commercial breaks and fluff pieces, and then held the entire package an additional three hours for the Pacific and Mountain time zones. Let's not forget that the Olympic Games are being held in the Pacific time zone. It doesn't matter to the network. By the time the Games air at 8 PM on the East Coast, anyone with an Internet connection or even cable TV can and likely does know the results of the events they're about to watch on the NBC broadcast channel. And if you're in LA or Seattle, you've known the results for almost an entire day. The network has run hockey and curling live on CNBC and MSNBC and on nbcolympics.com all week long, and as a hockey fan I applaud this decision. But the fact remains that NBC's coverage of these Games (and the Games in years past) is built on a model that assumes the average viewer turns on the TV when they get home and leaves it on the same channel all night long. They pick and choose what to show in prime time based on advertising revenue targets for the audience they want to reach. But people don't watch TV like that any more.
Network coverage of the Olympics has to change. As people in my generation get older and have more buying power, we're going to demand that the network cater to what we want and not accept the bite-sized chunks that get laid out for us. Some of us want to see the entire mens' downhill ski event, not just a few skiers and the winners. Some people want to see all the figure skating they can have and then some. And there are people who like cross-country, biathlon, speed skating, and other events that would love to see those events in their entirety, but they have to take what NBC gives them. We know that NBC has cameras at all of these events. And we know that the network can put events online all day long and they will find an audience. Why not go the whole way?
What I imagine is a hybrid of what CBS does with the NCAA tournament and what Versus does with the Tour de France. First, show all the events live, no matter what the time of day. Even if the Olympics are being held 12 time zones away, people will watch them live. Use all the networks (CNBC and MSNBC in NBC's case) and show as many events live as possible. The Olympics only come around once every four years for sixteen days. If NBC is going to lose money on the Games, why not go all in and preempt Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann for two weeks? And show the Games online and elsewhere with the same ads that will run when the events are shown in prime time later that night. While the events are running online, run a crawl or an ad every few minutes that tells the online viewer when the same event will be on in prime time that night. People who watch during the day while they're at work might want to see the same event in glorious HD later that evening. Or they might call their parents/grandparents/friends who can't watch online and tell them "you have to see this downhill race later tonight. It's on at 9:30 PM."
Which leads me to the second part of my suggestion (the Versus part). Keep the tape-delayed pre-packaged prime time coverage model that has worked for thirty years. While there is a large audience of geeks and bored workers who will watch events online, there are many, many other viewers who will still want to tune in at 8 PM and watch all evening long. So cater to them as well. Even though the events have already aired on other networks and online, people like the fluff segments and the studio interviews. It works for Versus. They run the Tour de France live in the morning straight up, with play-by-play and instant commentary. And they advertise during the broadcast for viewers to tune in at 8 PM for expanded coverage of the same stage. Then they repeat the broadcast at 8 PM, but with more interviews, more studio analysis, and more pre-taped segments. It's almost exactly the prime-time Olympics model. And people will tune in.
What's it going to take to make these changes? We'll need a young sports division head who knows the online viewing habits of 18-34 year-olds. They'll be the ones calling their parents and telling them to watch the Games that night. And this sports division head will need to do their homework and be ready to stand up to network executives and show them that there's a better way to cover these Games. And we'll need a network president that understands that old models don't work any longer.
The networks have to change to fit the times. They can't force us to watch their outdated prime-time package and only that. We want sports when we want them, and we'll find ways to get the sports elsewhere if we have to. Why make us go to those lengths? Give us what we want, and we'll sing your praises to anyone who will listen.
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