In 2014 NBC Universal paid an astonishing $7.75 Billion for exclusive rights to the Olympic games through 2032. Based on the viewership numbers from this summer’s games that’s not exactly money well spent.
Compared to the London Olympics of 2012 viewership among the prime demographic of 18-49 year olds dropped by 25% this has caused quite a bit of alarm for both the Network and the many advertisers desperate to target this key segment of the population. NBC execs were quick to slam Millennials for being too busy with their noses in Facebook, Snapchat and Pokemon to notice that the games were taking place. Nonsense. What NBC is really having a hard time understanding is that their coverage is absolute, utter, complete, outright, unadulterated, festering, putrefied garbage.
While much of the sports coverage in the US tends to focus on slightly different angles than the rest of the world is used to, NBC has concocted a formula that they have been refining for years one that can take sport, condense it, remove the sport from it and somehow sell it as general entertainment to the masses. In fact they really don’t see the sport, the athleticism, the achievement in excellence as being worth peoples time. Instead it is a condiment used to spice up a generic entertainment package.
As someone who grew up watching European sports coverage, I became rather disillusioned trying to follow the same events through US media. Firstly there are the commercials, a relentless deluge of brands and services stuffed right into our faces at any opportunity. If the media could getaway with sticking a six second pharmaceutical ad between the firing of the gun and the finish line of the 100 Metre final you bloody well know they would. A great example here is the opening ceremony in Rio. Not a particularly good one especially in comparison to Danny Boyle’s magnificent opener in London but pleasant viewing all the same. That is, unless you had the displeasure of watching it on NBC. The commercial interruptions were relentless, the studio punditry atrocious. In fact there were a total of five commercial breaks slotted into the first 30 minutes of the opening ceremony. No surprise then that so many viewers started doing laundry or cleaning out the garage for a superior form of entertainment.
More resilient Olympic fans flocked to the web where they could access uninterrupted foreign coverage through the glorious use of proxy’s and VPN’s. A trend that continued throughout the games despite NBC’s efforts to stream events through their own lousy commercially interrupted service. It was online that many American’s noticed the other key difference between international and domestic Olympic Coverage. There was actual coverage. In a plot probably conceived by Ming the Merciless to bring the most powerful nation on Earth to it’s knees, his television network cronies had decided that sport should play second fiddle to that general entertainment formula mentioned earlier. Sport it appears cannot be fully understood by the unwashed masses without what the Network calls “Context”. The achievement of somebody doing something faster or better than any human in history doesn’t really mean anything unless there is some sob story to accompany it.
NBC thought they had it all worked out, one Network executive nailed their general entertainment strategy on the head when he said: “The people who watch the Olympics are not particularly sports fans. More women watch the Games than men, and for the women, they’re less interested in the result and more interested in the journey. It’s sort of like the ultimate reality show and mini-series wrapped into one. And to tell the truth, it has been the complaint of a few sports writers. It has not been the complaint of the vast viewing public.” Yet they are still scratching their heads in bemusement at losing a vast chunk of that viewing public?
It might actually work if the journey was something worth following but instead we are treated to the hardship of elite athletes from the wealthiest nation on Earth subjected to the best training, facilities and athletic programs in existence. It’s a bit difficult to shed a tear for Brad who had to overcome being an inch shorter than his friends in middle school when he’s competing against some poor chap from the arsehole of the Earth who’s entire family was possibly butchered by militia with machete’s.
Of course NBC knows that these sentimental horse droppings do appeal to a certain demographic: Baby Boomer Grandmothers still traumatized by the Cold War. In order to not let them miss a single AARP commercial, the Network refused to broadcast many events live, instead compiling them for Prime Time viewing, padded by lavish amounts of melodramatic features and that all important advertising. While that may have worked back in 2012 or 2008, they need to understand that, for Grandmother Nancy, prime-time is now Judge Joe Brown and QVC at 4pm followed by a quick trip to Golden Coral for supper and bedtime at 7pm.
Another gripe has to be the presenters. The Network once again managed to compile the most bland array of generic media types imaginable. I’ll name Bob Costas, Al Michaels and Ryan Seacrest to just skim some of the sewage off the surface. They have about as much charisma as Floridian on Bath Salts tying to eat your face. What’s worse there’s probably quite a number of former Olympians who could do the job. That’s what they do in other countries, like the UK where the BBC packs the studio full of people who actually know what they are talking about rather than a bunch of second rate stooges better utilized calling bingo numbers in a nursing home.
Now back to the whole concept of delayed coverage. I was left bewildered in 2012 when I discovered that NBC chose to delay the broadcast of the Olympic marquee event in favor of a prime-time slot. It was of course the men’s 100 Metres final and the expectation was that we would roll the clock back to the pre Internet age, take the phone off the hook and be genuinely surprised by the outcome having it not spoiled by social media and the other six and a half billion people on the planet who knew the winner. Sure enough, they repeated much of this process for certain events in Rio and at one point it was rather amusing to hear the result of a gymnastics event that had yet to be shown announced on the NBC Nightly News. Announced they said because it had already been widely reported elsewhere. This backwards way of thinking is entirely self destructive for the Network and the longer it persists the more their viewer numbers will continue to crumble.
Perhaps they need to start taking a more heavy handed approach to their general entertainment formula. Obviously the trials and tribulations of athletes isn’t enough to engage the audience so the only logical course of action is to up the ante and generate better, more exciting stories to pair with their achievements. Perhaps we can look forward to something like the following at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics:
“Competing in her first Olympics, Stacy Sagan had to overcome great adversity for this opportunity to win gold. Born into a privileged life she struggled as a child to keep up with the sporting exploits of her older siblings. After showing great potential her father made the difficult decision to sell his multi million dollar business and move into the families vacation estate so that Stacy could be closer to her full time coaching staff. It was there that Stacy moved to the next level competing on the national stage but she never forgot her humble beginnings in Malibu. She stands here seeking glory and if victorious, plans to dedicate the gold medal to the memory of her late mother who died tragically just two weeks ago, bludgeoned to death by a crack team of NBC executives desperate to make this story more moving.”
At the end of the day there are many reasons people don’t watch the Olympic games. Rampant corruption in the IOC, extensive performance enhancing drug use by athletes, the economic burden on the hosts and so much more. Many Americans have a reason that’s all their own. NBC.