COLUMN: NBC taking drama out of Olympics with delayed coverage

Wednesday, February 24, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 12:27 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 21, 2010

I knew Lindsey Vonn won Olympic gold in the woman’s downhill ski hours before it aired in the perpetual present on NBC. I also knew Vonn crashed in the super combined way before NBC even pretended it happened. Sports are not fun to watch on tape delay, especially in the Internet age, where we technophiles are constantly jacked into a stream of news. 

I would even go so far as to say that even if you are not emotionally attached to your laptop and Twitter feeds, there is no escaping dreaded Olympics results spoilers. Between word-of-mouth and incidental media consumption, news of the Olympics can't be avoided if you engage in the modern world.

NBC, the broadcast network home of America’s Olympic coverage for as long as I can remember (that would be the summer games of 1992 in Barcelona, Spain), has not adjusted at all to this new media landscape. Which is funny, considering NBC achieved the first live color television broadcast via satellite by airing the opening ceremonies of the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

A typical prime time night of Olympics is a mixed bag of live and tape-delayed sports, with Bob Costas in a studio with a fake fireplace trying not to get excited when Dutch speed skaters beat Shani Davis. But most annoying, and not to mention borderline dishonest, is NBC’s insistence on not quite telling the viewer if the event is live or not. I was frankly unsure if Shaun “The Flying Tomato” White’s victory in the snowboard halfpipe was live until I heard some language that is sure-to-be FCC-fine-inducing.

The figure skating is sure to be shown live, and every now and again there is a small icon telling you the viewer that you're watching in real time. But the skiing, a glamorous and therefore prime-time worthy sport, takes place during the day in Vancouver, B.C., and if you just watched the nightly NBC Olympic telecast, you would have no idea. Perhaps daylight is a dead give away on TV, but if you're watching ski jumping at 7 p.m. CST, it is 5 p.m. in Vancouver and before sunset. There is no acknowledgment that the sporting events being shown took place hours before. Full and constant disclosure of whether the event is live or tape delayed is crucial.

Sports are inherently dramatic. And NBC is killing it. There is no suspense, no drama, no thrill of the win and no urgency when most of the audience already knows the results. The disconnect between the audience and the broadcast presentation is a serious detriment to the coverage.

I get the appeal, for NBC, of having prime events in prime time. But that is a very old media approach. And sure, even if I already knew Vonn bit the big one in the super combined, I still want to see it happen (and even in prime time). NBC Universal has tons of networks between its free-to-air and cable television holdings, and the potential to have beyond amazing Olympic coverage. What if skiing was shown live in the morning on CNBC or MSNBC, with a highlight reel in prime time? Or what's wrong with showing live events on NBC itself; can’t “Days of Our Lives” have two weeks off every two years? I am infinitely frustrated when I turn my TV to NBC to see soap operas when a real-life athletic soap opera is going on, unseen by American eyes. 

The Internet could be utilized to a much greater effect. For the Vancouver games, NBC is live-streaming all of the hockey and curling and offering replays of other events. But frankly, the video site is much like the broadcast production: flashy and confusing. And the video player made me download a new piece of software. The site lacks the simplicity and elegance of Hulu, a free Internet TV site, also owned by NBC Universal.

The Olympics are the most exciting sporting event in the world, with only the possible exception of the FIFA World Cup. One Olympic flame; two weeks; 82 countries; and 258 gold, silver and bronze medals to be won. This is the stuff that dreams are really made of.

If only NBC treated it that way.

Erin K. O'Neill is a former assistant director of photography and page designer for the Missourian. She is also a master's degree candidate at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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