Monday, 30 July 2012

Watching the London Olympics in the USA: Part Two

I'm very used to commercials on US television. I have seen TV shows cut down to fit more commercials in. This is most visible when commercial US providers struggle with ad-free offerings from the BBC. I've seen whole interviews cut from episodes of Top Gear. I've even seen commercials cut down to fit in more commercials: There's one about a sagging couch screened occasionally and I've never actually seen the end of it so I don't even know what it's advertising.

Television is an industry and a public service. Sometimes these elements are combined (see the UK's Channel 4), sometimes they are separated (compare the UK's BBC, the USA's PBS and every commercial channel out there). On NBC, commercials during the London Olympic Ceremony were expected, and even okay, even if they did disrupt the flow of the performance.

NBC defended its editing of the ceremony before it was broadcast, on tape delay, with commercials and NBC commentary. In and of itself, these things are probably okay, even if they did disrupt the flow of the performance.  Even if it's an out-dated approach to global event media, and even if NBC was live-Tweeting the very ceremony it wasn't broadcasting anywhere live (yes, really).

The commentary during the performance has already been much maligned, and truthfully I tried to ignore it as I enjoyed the performance. "The only commentary should be understated and sarcastic" I said, recalling UK efforts in Eurovision commentary. For Mark's American parents, who are more used to the NBC commentators on every day news, it was a source of irritation. "Shut up Matt, shut up Vieira" they cried at frequent intervals, especially as the commentators spoke over the venue's own announcer. I didn't know at the time that #shutupmattlauer was trending on Twitter.

But the next day, when I read criticisms that the performance felt disjointed and incoherent, I got the feeling that this was not due to the ceremony itself, but rather the way it was broadcast. And that's disappointing. Of course I felt very protective of the British ceremony, but broadcasting should enhance, not take away, from an experience. When #nbcfail was also trending on Twitter, it became apparent that the online community did not think the broadcast was enhancing much at all.

--- Here are the six ways NBC blew their Olympic coverage, and the six most cringeworthy moments of their broadcast.

As a Brit it is hard not to be personally offended by NBC's decision to remove the touching Abide with Me element of the ceremony. Moreso because the UK commentary recalled the 7/7 London bombings, which happened the day after the announcement that London would be venue for the 2012 Olympics. But the section was supposed to be more than that; it was a poignant memorial for "those who are absent". The London 2012 Ceremony Guide states:
Spectators have been invited to present images of loved ones who couldn’t be with us tonight. In a moving moment, those who are absent from us are digitally present.
Terrorism in any guise is deplorable, and this element allowed for a beautiful moment of reflection for all nations during the celebration, as NBC's Bob Costas had already planned to do in his commentary, for the 1972 incident. Deadspin has covered the missing memorial, stating that it's a "mystery" why the section was cut. NBC defended its decision post facto, saying their edit was for US audiences.

But I've been following the #nbcfail comments and commentary. US audiences are not happy, and not just this oversensitive displaced Brit. Audiences who pay for cable TV, who want to watch live online and on TV, and in any multimedia way that suits them best: They aren't happy and they want more. They want prime time repeats and round-ups after the event, sure, but they also want unedited footage at the point of action (of both ceremony and sports). And if that's not what these audiences are getting they're all too happy to publicly declare that they'll use any means possible (legal or otherwise) to get the multimedia product they desire.

Good business would suggest that NBC should please its audience and give viewers what they want. NBC says it carried out market research that said people preferred prime time round-ups. Business focus groups are rarely as broad or wide as the opportunity to gauge public opinion that Twitter provides. Focus groups for example are expensive. They are comprised of what, up to twenty paid contributors, many of whom make a career of going to focus groups? Twitter is spontaneous, open, free, and offers up to 500m opinions. I've noticed that the trending theme is no longer #nbcfail but #NBC, and that NBC accounts are more frequently retweeting positive comments. I'm not sure what these mean, but it suggests an acknowledgement by NBC of the online ruckus. Maybe they are worried after all.

I hear the BBC coverage is fantastic, I know the Guardian's Olympics website is brilliant.  But the BBC is publicly funded by the UK taxpayer, and the Guardian is struggling with its digital income models (I know because I went to their Open Weekend event and talked it out with them). As summed up by Jeff Jarvis, maybe the BBC "superserves" its audiences because they pay the bill. NBC serves advertisers because they pay the bill. Jarvis says he doesn't buy that argument.

The key thing, though, is that NBC hasn't failed. They've got the exclusive contract to show the games, and they've got the ratings (and apparently Business Insider is happy too). And maybe the model for profiting from multimedia sports coverage just hasn't quite been refined. Maybe sticking with an old familiar model is safest and most profitable (even if it garners complaints, as the NBC model did in 2010 as well).

NBC has the contract for the Olympics until 2020 I believe, so until then I'll stop being an offended Brit, and continue to be a fascinated media scholar.

So, just for fun, to cast the cat amongst the pigeons, it'd be interesting to imagine what Google, the company which traditional broadcasters fear, would do with the rights to such an event. I can only imagine that'd be a multimedia spectacle with an innovative income generation business model.…What do you think?

If you'd like to read other expats' opinions of the NBC spectacle, I recommend Expat Mum, and LOTS. Both have excellent blogs generally, and both have also covered this strange experience of watching the homeland's shining moment from another country's perspective.


  1. I've now taken to watching the olympic coverage through the NBC website which is slightly better then their TV coverage that is for sure - at least it's live haha! Oh my - it makes you miss the BBC and the red button.

    Thanks for the link to my blog btw!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I just realized it said I deleted my comment when I don't think I did, oops. Anyway, no probs :)

    I have to be fair and say the soccer channel has been great and we've watched a lot of that.

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