BOB GARFIELD: This week, coverage of the 2012 Summer Olympics is inescapable. It’s essentially a 16-day Super Bowl, and the TV viewership has been huge, on average, 35.6 million Americans per night. That beats 2008 in Beijing or 2004 in Athens by millions. In fact, to find a non-US Summer Olympics that got more American viewers, you have to go back to 1976 in Montreal.
It’s unlikely this year’s TV ratings will surpass Montreal’s because 1) there are now a zillion other viewing options and 2) NBC can’t beat the clock. London is five hours ahead of New York, limiting what NBC can broadcast live in primetime. NBC has offered cable subscribers the ability to stream events live online but viewers who want broadcast quality and high production values are stuck with the tape delays, which has led to a kind of a battle, on one side, viewers and critics accustomed to watching TV when and how they want to, on the other, NBC, which wants to maximize the ad revenue that pays for all the coverage.
Time Magazine TV Critic James Poniewozik has written about this quandary. Jim, welcome back.
JAMES PONIEWOZIK: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD:The Onion had a headline this week that read [LAUGHS], “NBC on Olympics Coverage: Sorry We Didn’t Alter the Laws of Time and Space to Accommodate People’s Schedules.” You’re one of the critics who wished they had. What’s your beef?
JAMES PONIEWOZIK: It’s absolutely true, one cannot reasonably expect NBC to air live Olympic events in American primetime because that is the middle of the early morning in London. But what NBC could easily do and chooses not to is air the most anticipated events, the ones that they know their viewers most want to watch live and then air them again in primetime when more people have a chance to watch it. So when NBC holds back a big event from you all day and you wait hours and hours and hours to find out who’s gonna win the Women’s Swimming Competition, and then NBC shows you five minutes before they air the race:
DAN HICKS: Coming up, how good can Missy Franklin be tonight? Finals of the 100 back, coming up.
ANNOUNCER: When you’re 17 years old and win your first Gold Medal, there’s nobody you’d rather share it with. A Today exclusive, live from London, tomorrow.
JAMES PONIEWOZIK: [LAUGHS] You know, they – they – then they reap the fallout from that. NBC does air live Olympic coverage from London – water polo, judo. If you’re slightly interested in watching it, they may be willing to show it to you live. If you’re very interested in watching it, they want to make sure that you wait until primetime, if you want to see it on your big screen TV.
BOB GARFIELD: They make a whole lot more money by showing the most popular events in primetime, where the audiences are vastly larger.
JAMES PONIEWOZIK: Yes. They want to collect as many eyeballs as they can in their most lucrative day part because they’re a business and they’ve got a lot of bills to pay, including a multi-billion-dollar bill for airing the Olympics, to begin with.
And here’s the funny thing: NBC is deliberately airing all its events live over the Internet, and NBC isn’t making the stuff available just out of the goodness of its hearts. They and other networks have found that with live events, when you have people watching them early, say an award ceremony that airs live to the East Coast and taped to the West Coast, the fact that some people see it first and are spoiling it and buzzing about it and tweeting about it, that over and over again has seemed to actually goose and increase numbers for the events.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, it seems to me that one way or another, this is kind of a pivotal moment in the evolution of broadcast television. On the one hand, viewers have grown accustomed to being able to determine the time and place of their viewing. On the other hand, NBC seems to be kind of sticking to the old model of dictating what you’re going to get, when you’re gonna get it.
JAMES PONIEWOZIK: It’s just a classic case of something that we see more and more often now, which is a mismatch between the capabilities of media today and the business model. NBC, you know, like a lot of media companies, has the capability of bringing you the Olympics in a 21st century way, on your schedule, where you want to watch it. But they only really know how to make money off of it the 20th century. And so, as much as possible, they have to try to compel you into that framework.
So while there have always been people who didn’t like tape delay, now you have this disparity between what you know NBC could do and what NBC is actually doing. And it just makes for a more and more adversarial model of business.
And NBC is relying on things like Twitter and Facebook, and so on, to build buzz for their Games, which has paid off in the ratings but it also creates this tremendous echo chamber for anybody who wants to complain about it.
BOB GARFIELD: There’s one more thing I want to ask you. With this gigantic audience that it’s assembled in primetime, NBC has said publicly, “We might even break even.” They have invested billions of dollars in the Olympics contract over the years, why have they made this investment if they don’t even think they’re gonna break even?
JAMES PONIEWOZIK: Well, there are all sorts of ancillary benefits to a big media company like NBC. It raises their profile to have the Olympics, and there are things like promotional benefits, which, you know, NBC hopes anyway, that it’s going to be promoting a lot of new NBC fall shows, say on the Olympics this summer, and then have them turn out to be hits in the fall. Now, I would say that one of the last times NBC tried to do this was in 2004, where its big potential primetime hits were “Father of the Bride” and “Joey” –
- which, as we all know, are now triumphantly going into their ninth seasons.
So, you know, [LAUGHS] look for magic to happen again.
BOB GARFIELD: Jim, thank you very much.
JAMES PONIEWOZIK: Thanks a lot, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: James Poniewozik is TV critic for Time Magazine.