TV SportsNBC Goes Digital for Olympics, but Tape Will Still Roll in Prime Time
By Richard Sandomir, The New York Times
- Jun. 28, 2012
I have, for 20 years, written copiously about NBC’s use of tape-delay during the Olympics. I bore witness to the pre-1992 Summer Games vow of Terry O’Neil, then the executive producer of NBC Sports, that the events from Barcelona, Spain, would be shown “plausibly live” — on tape but delivered as if live.
“Will it feel live to them?” O’Neil said. “Yeah. It’s designed to.”
O’Neil’s coinage codified the way foreign Olympics broadcasts, primarily, were covered. Events were taped because prime time in the United States coincides with the post-midnight hours in Europe. Announcers called races, games and matches live to tape. At its best, hosts like Bob Costas clued us in that what we were seeing was in the past, and hopefully, kept their tenses and time zones straight.
And even when marquee events could be shown live, NBC held them for prime time.
Costas compared the tape-delayed broadcast of the 2000 Summer Games from Sydney, Australia, to the History Channel.
“It wasn’t just delayed,” he said Wednesday during a news conference to preview NBC’s coverage of the Summer Games in London. “It was the next day. I was presenting events that in some cases I had attended and that I then read about in the Sydney newspaper while being driven to the broadcast center.”
But NBC’s plans in London represent a break from the past and a continued embrace of it.
Every event will be shown live, online, at NBColympics.com. Live events will also be seen on the NBC Sports Network, CNBC, MSNBC and NBC in the mornings and afternoons. But in prime time, NBC’s broadcasts will be on tape, focused, as usual, on swimming, diving, gymnastics, track and field, and beach volleyball. And features, shorter and less tearful over the years, will retain their part of the mix.
NBC has been moving toward a digital Olympics, a bit fitfully, and somewhat fretfully, since 2008.
But now, it appears to be a wholehearted shift to the digital present. Starting July 27,
NBCOlympics.com will stream 3,500 hours of live coverage, with a peak of 40 simultaneous streams, to verified cable, satellite and telephone company customers. It is easy, and correct, to ask: what took NBC so long?
Mark Lazarus, the chairman of the NBC Sports Group, said during the news conference: “As times have changed there is a sense to satisfy all people with technology. And the ability to provide live streams of every event is one that we now have.”
The technology might be better in 2012, but it did not appear out of a genie’s bottle last month. NBC has changed. Comcast, a technology-savvy company, owns a majority of NBC Universal. And the regime that runs the NBC Sports Group does not think live-streaming all the sports will cannibalize prime-time ratings — unlike Dick Ebersol, who ran the division from 1989 until last year and slashed the number of live streams from 25 at the 2008 Beijing Games to two during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.
Costas, NBC’s prime-time host for the ninth time, suggested that the former Olympic business model that Ebersol championed was not wrong — and that criticism of it was off base.
It is easier, he said, “if you’re writing for newspaper X to say with righteous indignation, ‘This is some sort of outrage.’ And yet if you swapped jobs that day with Dick Ebersol or now Mark Lazarus, they would either do exactly the same thing or they would be fired and then taken to a sanitarium.”
NBC did what it had to do, with its dependence on prime-time advertising to finance its rights fees, and without billions of dollars of ESPN-like subscriber fees, to pay its Olympic rights fees. But NBC’s adherence to a business model that made sense internally did not mean that fans, and those who are paid to watch, were wrong in registering their dismay at taped sports events and minimal live streaming.
But technology, and corporate ownership, have clearly altered NBC’s Olympic course.
NBC has so far booked about $60 million in digital advertising, helped by the unleashing of all the live streams. All told, NBC’s national advertising sales for the Olympics are at $950 million, $100 million ahead of the total from the Beijing Games. Still, even when other revenue sources are included, NBC does not expect to earn a profit, not with its $1.18 billion rights fee for the London Games. But Lazarus said that NBC does not expect to lose as much as it originally expected as recently as last year.
This might be the Olympics that hard-core fans and those with casual knowledge of Olympic sports have been craving for a long time. If viewers are satisfied with streaming live events wherever they are, and NBC still attracts a large audience in the evenings, Lazarus could build an early legacy.
“Well, I don’t think you can create a legacy with one Games,” he said. “So my strong legacy is to be invited back to do the next one.” Seated beside him, Costas said: “Well, it’s only a year and a half; they can’t can you in that space of time. You’re going to Sochi, if only as punishment.”http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/28/sports/olympics/nbc-will-show-every-olympic-event-live-online.html?_r=1&ref=media