Wednesday, August 20, 2008

NBC is ruining my Olympics

Normally I love watching big sporting events on TV, but my first experience of an Olympic Games as seen from an American perspective has been a total washout.

It's not the bias towards Team USA in the coverage and commentary, as that's completely forgivable. The latent jingoism of almost every nation's broadcasters comes to the fore during the Olympics, and Britain was certainly no exception: it has just been a matter of replacing rowing and plucky defeats with more beach volleyball and high-fives.

No, it's the fact that NBC, the network which owns the rights to screen the games in the US, has decided to show virtually nothing live. Instead broadcasts are delayed until prime time, regardless of when they originally took place. This means almost a full day's cold storage for much of the footage.

And not just that, but the few events which have happened at the right time of day in China to be broadcast simultaneously here are only shown live on the East Coast. Prime time starts three hours later on the West Coast, and so does the same, supposedly "live" NBC coverage. Of course, this doesn't stop the channel from leaving the word "live" in the top corner of the screen, as if they - and we - aren't aware that these goods are frozen, not fresh.

But in this world of instant online news coverage, I am aware of it; indeed, with an event the size of the Olympics, it has been pretty much impossible to avoid the fact. I can't go online to check my email without being bombarded with news and results from the games.

So I knew about most of Michael Phelps' gold medal wins before I saw them on television. I knew that China's biggest track and field star, 110-metre hurdler Liu Xiang, had failed in his quest for gold long before I saw him limp out of his first race. I knew that Usain Bolt had destroyed the opposition in the 100m final before I ever got a chance to see him start his celebrations well before he reached the finish line.

And now I also know that finding out the results of sporting events ahead of time makes them a lot less exciting to watch.

But there's always NBC's internet coverage, right? Wrong. Despite the fact that the channel's Olympics website features tons of awesome, high-quality streaming video (which could be shown at any time of day or night without interrupting their schedules), most of that is also delayed, presumably so that it doesn't interfere with those precious prime time ratings.

It's hard not to see this as arrogance. This is an event that is much bigger than any one TV channel, so broadcasters should bend to fit in with the Olympics, not the other way round. But, thankfully, it seems that not everyone who works in the US television industry is so dumb. Sports network ESPN is bidding for the 2014 and 2016 winter and summer games, and promises to show more of them live no matter the time of day or night.

Talking about NBC's Olympic performance, ESPN's executive VP John Skipper told the New York Times: "Our DNA is different than theirs. We serve sports fans. It's hard in our culture to fathom tape-delaying in the same way they have ... We did Euro 2008 in the afternoon. We've done the World Cup in the middle of the morning. We have different audiences."