Since the opening ceremonies, NBC's coverage of the 2012 Olympics from London has taken something of a beating in the press and in social media circles. While there have been complaints about editing choices and the presence of one Ryan Seacrest, the loudest and harshest criticisms revolve around the fact that many of the biggest events are being held for NBC's primetime line-up, then broadcast on a tape-delay basis. (The coverage complaints have, in fact, inspired two Twitter "hash-tags": #NBCFail, which reads like a laundry list of complaints against the network's programming decisions, and #NBCDelayed, which features entries like "BREAKING: American colonists announce independence, King to respond," and "FLASH: Neil Armstrong walks on moon, 'a giant leap for mankind.'")
NBC, for its part, is pointing to the high ratings; their primetime Olympics coverage averaged 32 million viewers a night for the first week, a runaway smash by any modern metric. And they have their defenders, including -- in an "odd-bedfellow" sort of way -- CBS president Les Moonves, who was quoted by industry publication Broadcasting & Cable in a July 30 story that he thought his network would have "almost definitely" taken the same approach, and that he also thought that NBC was "handling it very well."
Tape-delay is not a recent invention, of course; it's been utilized by the TV business for almost as long as the technology has existed. (One of the greatest moments in Olympic and American sports history, the 1980 U.S. hockey team's win over the Soviets, was broadcast on ABC via tape-delay -- and that match happened in Lake Placid, New York.) But in these days of high-quality, live streaming video over the Internet, when content can be instantly delivered, on-demand, from the next room, halfway around the world, or -- literally -- from the surface of Mars, it doesn't make much sense to some that NBC should hold onto footage for hours and hours, even as the results appear on Twitter feeds and Facebook pages and news websites.
To be fair, NBC's digital coverage is comprehensive -- the network promised an astonishing 5535 hours (or 230.625 days worth) of coverage across their various platforms, and that's what they're delivering. If you have satellite or cable, you have access to a large amount of the events across several of their channels, such as CNBC and MSNBC, as well their newly-rebranded NBC Sports Network (formerly known as Versus). Their dedicated website, www.NBC Olympics.com, is where you can watch all the events live; unfortunately, you have to prove that you have cable or satellite service -- or give them your e-mail address for a "Temporary Viewing Pass" -- to see anything.
It's not a bad thing that NBC has elected to put so much coverage into the marketplace, but the largest segment of the American Olympic audience isn't concerned about such events as handball or sailing or men's field hockey. Nope, they want easy, one-stop live viewing of the major events like swimming, gymnastics and track, and to have obstacles put up at every turn smacks of corporate hubris and indifference. (#NBCFail was actually born out of one potential viewer's frustration at the website wall.)
For the television industry, this is -- as usual -- a financial issue. NBC paid more than $4 billion to maintain their position as the Olympics' U.S. broadcast partner for the next 4 go-rounds (beating out an ESPN/ABC bid that proposed live televised coverage of all events, with selected action repackaged for primetime). That's a big -- and likely money-losing -- bet, designed to be a "loss-leader," which is what a retail store calls those deeply discounted items that have the sole purpose of bringing customers into the building. All the broadcast networks do this, of course, and have for years, with varying degrees of success.
In this case, NBC hopes that if you tune in for the big Olympic events in primetime, you'll watch the promos for their regular programming (and their new fall shows), which will lead to you sticking around for awhile -- and watching all the commercials slotted within, which is where the network picked up the cash to pay for things that draw big, broad-based audiences, like the Olympics and pro football. (Indeed, NBC will be launching several new series immediately after the Olympics conclude, such as the new Matthew Perry sitcom "Go On," hoping to get a month-plus leg-up on the competition.)
This strategy is not new, of course, and although it's tested by decades of success, its time may very well be running out. We're in an age when the TV landscape is changing rapidly, thanks to the continuing advance and adoption of technology. If "on-demand" is the watchword for the direction that the entertainment world is moving, then "tape-delay" could be seen as code for stagnation -- or worse, a significant step backward.
Since NBC has had the least buzz among the broadcast networks (which are generally already viewed as "still-useful, but-for-how-long" antiques) during the last several years, they can ill-afford being considered the least forward-thinking or viewer-friendly of them all. Admittedly, while live coverage of the most popular Olympic events on local over-the-air NBC stations might not have made a huge dent in viewers' perceptions of the network, it certainly wouldn't have hurt, either.