The Lost Peacock

by Casey Barrett

An inside out account of NBC’s doomed broadcast model… Guess what? The ones producing these Games can’t stand tape delay either…  

It’s 9pm London time, 4pm on the east coast of the U.S. The swimming finals have just ended and the NBC production crew has just produced another session of Olympic action. Now it’s time to get to work. That is, chopping up the footage, re-calling some races, cutting some features, and otherwise tweaking their coverage until it’s just right and ready to air four hours later. Or five or six or seven hours later, depending on when it finally makes it into NBC’s primetime broadcast.

The talented folks doing this insane amount of work, they get it. They know – even more than you do – that these events should be airing live. They know it’s infinitely better that way, despite the inevitable in-the-moment imperfections. They know this because most of them spend the rest of their days producing other sporting events. Ones that air live. Like the NFL and Wimbledon and, say, the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials in Omaha.

Ask the Olympic veterans around the International Broadcast Center about their favorite Games past. Their answers may surprise you. They have almost nothing to do with whatever world capital was the host, or what American superstar delivered transcendent performances. These things are memorable, no question. Sydney was the single best host for an Olympics in anyone’s memory, just the perfect Olympic city. And Beijing will always be unforgettable thanks to Phelps’s eight gold perfection. But if you’re asking about favorites, the answer is simple: The ones that were live. Like Salt Lake City in 2002 and Atlanta in 1996. (Two towns that are on no one’s list of favorite world cities…)

For those who work in sports television, live means two things: A better product and sane working conditions. (Is sane the wrong word? Nothing in TV is sane, but at least bearable…) You produce a terrific event with that incomparable live drama, and when it ends it’s over. No do-overs, no re-voicing, no re-touching the features. Game over, for both the athletes and the ones bringing it to you.

I was a part of this Olympic road show for some time. These London Games are the first Summer Olympics I’ve missed since 1992. I was there with NBC in Sydney and Athens and Torino and Beijing… All on tape, with one exception — the swimming in Beijing. Saw the light during those eight days. It was like arriving in the land of Oz, suddenly alive in technicolor, after three Games in taped black and white. Unfortunately, it went right back to gray old Kansas as soon as the swimming ended and the rest of the events aired per usual on tape.

I know we all want to believe that it’s ultimately all about the athletes, but the production and the programming behind them has a profound impact on how those athletic feats are perceived. Phelps mania would never have taken hold the way it did in Beijing if you hadn’t been watching it live back home in the States.

So, if the viewers and the ones making it for those viewers know that these events should all be aired live – for the good of all involved – then why aren’t they? Two words: bad business.

You can listen to television executives moan about how complicated this all is, how you just don’t understand the light speed shifts in the media landscape, how the basic brutal realities make it impossible for a network to air the Olympics live. It must be on tape in primetime if the events are going down in the wrong time zone. This is because the lion’s share of advertising dollars are made during primetime, and those ads prop up everything else. Expensive ads need a big audience, and a big majority of the audience is at work when most of these Olympic finals are taking place during the week.

However, this avoids the basic truth, the flaw in the whole design. The Olympics have become a bad business for NBC because bad businessmen have run it into the ground. And they’ve done it in the exact same manner that every other business gets run into the ground. Follow along with these three fatal steps: 1. Overspend on the product. 2. Misunderstand the market. 3. Try to dig your way out by offering a compromised outdated product in a way that can pay off your debts.

1. Overspend on product: NBC paid $2.2 billion on the rights to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games and the Games in London. The network lost $220 million on Vancouver. They won’t earn $220 million on London to break even for this multi-billion two Games investment. The network has said it will likely lose money on these Games too, blaming the high cost of working in London, but it’s a lot more than that.

NBC has also paid $4.38 billion for the rights to the next four Olympics. A billion and change each. That’s a hell of a gamble for an old media model that they’ve already proven doesn’t work financially.

2. Misunderstand the market: The online vitriol surrounding the London broadcasts has been overwhelming. Complete with the ranting Twitter hashtag #nbcfail. This is because the market understands what NBC doesn’t – that this live freezing feed online followed by taped events in primetime is an insulting way to watch the Olympics.

Do not expect them to understand this any time soon. This is because, thus far, the ratings have been great. So much so, that the network is saying they might get a little closer to breaking even, now that they can charge more for the remaining advertising through week two of London. Hiding behind these short term high ratings is like hiding behind the price of your new home in Vegas in 2005. Good luck with that equity.

3. Offer a compromised outdated product. That’s what you’re watching right now. You’re watching Olympic production wisdom from the 60’s and 70’s. The scripture of Roone Arledge, the gospel of Dick Ebersol. It is difficult to overstate how worshipped this gospel is inside the walls of NBC’s upper echelons. Dissent is NOT permitted. That’s not to say that all those producers, writers, editors, and talent don’t fully see the fallacy in all this. It’s just that they’re being held hostage as much as you are.

Actually, more so. When you get fed up, you can get up and walk away. Grab a beer from the fridge and rant a little on Twitter. When the folks producing these Games feel that way, all they can do is suck it up, have their eighth coffee of the day, and get back to work.

They deserve better. They deserve live. And so do you.