Why I love NBC for blacking out the Olympics: A cautionary tale for all publishers

Lots of folks have been bashing US broadcast network NBC for its coverage of the Winter Olympics from Vancouver, Canada. But allow me to take some space today to congratulate NBC. Thanks to the network’s decision to delay broadcast of many Olympic events – sometimes as much as 10 hours after their completion – I haven’t had so much fun watching an Olympics in, well, ever.

Huh? I hear folks asking. People have been roasting NBC’s decision. Do I actually support it?

Heck, no! But by denying me the chance to watch the Olympics live (which are taking place in the same time zone where I live, by the way), NBC’s pushed me to search the Web for live video and coverage, allowing me to find lively, even wildly entertaining, streams of coverage that I’d never have found if I’d been able to watch the games live on my TV.

That’s an important lesson for all news publishers. If you don’t provide the information that your audience wants, in the manner that they want it, people not only will they seek alternatives… but they might find ones that they strongly prefer to yours.

Me? I’ve been spending more of my days than I’d like to admit following the games on Twitter, the official Vancouver games website and whatever European and Canadian video streams folks on those sites have led me to. Vancouver’s website has a nifty widget on its real-time competition results pages that allows you to read what other folks reading the same page are posting to their Facebook status update about the event.

Not only does that provide you with the feeling of being in a packed dorm lounge or sports bar talking about the games (even when you’re alone at your computer), it’s also become one of the go-to first sources for Americans looking for links to live video streams of the games.

Thanks to other folks I’ve found through these social media streams, I’ve been exposed to EuroSport, CBC and other networks’ coverage of the games that I’d never have seen if I’d been able to watch NBC. Frankly, I’ve gotten a kick out of watching Lindsey Vonn attack the Whistler downhill while listening to commentators with rich Irish and English accents. Or to sit with my son and daughter watching the half-pipe competition, while my daughter picks out words from the commentators’ French, translating them to my son and me.

Even when I don’t understand the commentators’ language, I don’t miss results, since those stream live on my computer screen, thanks to the Vancouver website. And emotion transcends any language. In fact, it’s been a treat to experience these games as the global event they ought to be, rather than as a reality show focused only upon American athletes.

Of course, NBC doesn’t want me, or any other Americans, to do this. NBC spent billions to secure the exclusive broadcast rights to the games within the United States. If anyone outside the U.S. were able to stream video to U.S. residents, that could undermine NBC’s investment in those broadcast rights.

But I’d argue that NBC’s indifference to its audience is doing more damage to that investment. Chatter on the social networks turns to deep suspicion, even hostility, when video streams that have worked for hours go down within moments of being posted on the Vancouver Facebook stream. (Especially when those streams are replaced by notes that they were removed “at the request of the copyright holder.”)

My wife peeked over my shoulder as the women’s downhill stream died. When I explained what was happening, she replied, “What? Do we live in the Soviet Union now?”

Hey, she’s a writer, too, and dishes hyperbole professionally. But it does seem a bit much that a major corporation can employ the force of law to keep U.S. citizens from… watching an Olympic ski race at the same time as the rest of the world watches it, instead of eight hours later.

NBC and its handful of supporters counter that strong ratings for the games, even on the west coast where the delays are longest, show that Americans prefer to watch the games in prime time, rather than when they happen.

Allow me to suggest that there might be another variable in play here: The fact that Americans are cleaning up at the Vancouver games. Nothing pumps TV ratings in the U.S. like Americans rolling in gold. Heck, not only did I watch Lindsey Vonn and Shaun White on the Web live, I tuned in and watched
them again on NBC in prime time.

NBC could have had me as a consumer twice those days. It could have offered me live coverage of the events I wanted to see on NBC or online, plus serving up live social media streams that I instead found elsewhere. Heck, the network could have joined with Olympic broadcast partners in other nations to make those international feeds available on an official NBC website, capturing the page views and serving me the ads that I instead watched from other sources.

Then, NBC could continue to repackage the day’s highlights in a slickly produced prime-time wrap-up, as it now does, for those viewers who want the convenience of watching after work and dinner.

Part of the appeal of the international feeds, for me and for others on the social media feeds, lies in how they stick with the competition, rather than cutting out non-medal-contender athletes from other nations in favor of feature stories, promotions or more commercials, as NBC does in prime time. This helps viewers develop a feel for and, eventually maybe even a passion, for the individual sports of the Olympic Games.

Ironically, NBC has a financial interest in developing that passion within the U.S. audience. The network owns Universal Sports, a cable and HDTV broadcast channel devoted to year-round coverage of Olympic sports. You’d figure that NBC would at least use the games to promote the existence of Universal Sports, but I’ve not seen a single promotion for that channel in all the coverage I’ve watched on the flagship network. Nor is NBC using the Universal Sports channel (which I get over the air as a digital channel in Los Angeles) to show live coverage of events of less interest to U.S. audiences. All I’ve seen on the channel is taped coverage of pre-Olympic events.

Instead, NBC is cleaving to its strategy of betting it all on prime time, hoping that U.S. athletes win enough gold to keep ratings up. And when consumers like me turn to online alternatives to get the coverage they want, NBC calls up the lawyers and orders them to shut that coverage down.

Sounds a lot to me like the recording industry’s response to consumer demand for online music in the 1990s and 2000s, and the ongoing response of some in the newspaper industry to consumers’ flight to online news sources.

But you can’t fight your customers. The Internet was designed to route around disruptions, and the architecture (to that extent, at least) was brilliant. Its users have adopted that same spirit, too. The recording industry didn’t make file sharing services irrelevant by suing them out of existence. They became afterthoughts only when Apple’s iTunes provided a better alternative that (largely) met consumers’ needs.

And despite the doom-and-gloom coming from many newspaper managers, many online sites are thriving, producing original coverage of their local communities and topic niches, providing alternatives to diminishing daily newspaper coverage.

Given these precedents, it pains me to see NBC making the same, short-sighted mistakes. The network’s blowing a chance to expand its reach to millions of new viewers by learning to build a continuum of coverage that extends across television, cable, digital broadcast channels and the Internet, using social media and international connections to forge a more loyal audience of consumers for the network and its advertisers.

But NBC’s loss is my gain. Because the network isn’t doing that work… I’m doing it for myself. And so are thousands, and potentially millions, of other consumers in the United States. Not everyone’s gone as deep as I have in searching out online video, but millions are using social networks and alternative online news sources to keep up with the Olympics, instead of only turning to NBC.

NBC can do all it wants to make us watch the Olympics its way. But that heavy-handed control didn’t work for the recording industry, isn’t working for newspapers and is hanging a huge opportunity cost on NBC.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.


  1. says:

    We have Universal Sports over the air here in Chicago as well, and thank you for pointing out the lack of promotion that NBC has given the channel from their “flagship” broadcasts.

    The “newsdesk” role that Universal Sports has been serving during these Games has actually not been that bad, but no one knows about it. I also wonder if the lack of any real Olympics coverage on it (as it live events) is due to limited distribution.