U.S. curling fans were ready to throw rocks at NBC this week, after the network declined to show a live broadcast of the gold medal game between Canada and Sweden. So were figure-skating fans who were forced to subscribe to NBC’s cable sports network if they wanted to watch the ladies’ finals. Mind you, even hockey fans were upset – though the main NBC channel did broadcast the women’s gold medal game between the U.S. and Canada on Thursday afternoon – when announcer Doc Emrick took time to explain the significance of the blue line to viewers.
All of these sins were chronicled extensively on social media, which has become the crying room for the exuberantly aggrieved.
But what if NBC actually knows what it’s doing? What if most people actually view sports as entertainment rather than news, and don’t care that the Games they’re watching concluded half a day earlier? What if NBC’s central belief – that the role of a commercial broadcast television network is the production of expensive, high-gloss programming intended for mass audiences – still holds true, even in this era of niche services and instantaneous news transmission?
As it happens, these Winter Olympics are offering something of a cross-border laboratory of contemporary TV consumption.
While NBC has streamed most of the events live online but offered comparatively few events on its TV channels, CBC has put almost every live event on both online and traditional TV platforms. (It has also offered on-demand access both online and on traditional TV systems.)
“What we’ve learned through research is that, the more it’s out there, the more it stimulates consumption,” Trevor Pilling, head of programming for CBC Sports and Hockey Night in Canada, said in an interview.
“In 2012, the Summer Olympics, I saw Usain Bolt run his 100-metre race five times.”
“The more results become known to Canadians throughout the day, it creates more interest in watching the program on television, rather than less,” he said.
The jury is still out on the results: Both networks are down about 10 per cent from the average TV viewership for the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver. But online viewership is way up, in part because of advanced mobile technology. CBC said on Thursday that it had served up about 8.3 million hours of digital programming so far. (That was before both the women’s gold medal game on Thursday, which resulted in a preliminary average of about 325,000 viewers over the more than two and a half hours, and the men’s semi-final game on Friday afternoon.)
Still, while the #NBCFail hashtag was getting an Olympic workout on Twitter, plenty of less-vocal sports fans have spent the past two weeks anxiously avoiding spoilers in hopes of enjoying the Sochi Games in 20th-century style: across three hours or more of prime time each night, hosted by the veteran Bob Costas from a glittering set that made some viewers think of Elsa’s ice castle in the movie Frozen.
For those who subsist on the popular contemporary diet of bite-sized TV consumption, encouraged and enabled by online services such as Instagram and Twitter – check out the awesome goal on this six-second Vine! – it can be jarring to encounter an old-fashioned 180 or 210 minutes of packaged sports highlights every night. NBC’s approach is not for sports completionists: The network usually shows the performances of only the top handful of athletes (as well as any other American in the mix). But delaying the broadcast until prime time allows them to cut out the natural longueurs, such as the delays between bobsled runs. It also helps them to string along viewers by withholding results, such as figure skating marks, until after commercial breaks.
But then, if viewers only wanted to know the results, they could go online. (For that matter, they could follow the @NBCSports Twitter feed, which has ignored the tape delay and tweeted live results.) Viewers don’t, however, because they recognize they’re watching a reality show, one that uses the raw material of international sports to create a drama as slickly produced and manipulative (if not as manipulated) as American Idol.
And they may even find themselves learning about the sports they’re watching. NBC’s skiing coverage overlaid video of the winning runs atop those of other skiers, allowing viewers to see the sharp differences between a gold medalist and an also-ran. The network did the same with bobsled coverage, showing the contrast between the path of a winning sled on a turn wall and that of a competitor.
Skiing commentators analyzed the angles of boots against the snow plane of the ground, drawing geometric lines on the screen that illustrated how champion skiers increase their speed while whipping around the gates. And producers brought in former U.S. ski team member Steve Porino for mountainside hits, including one about how race organizers were salting the snow to ensure it could hold together. (To illustrate, he whacked a shovel against two mounds of snow: an unsalted one, which collapsed, and another with salt that withstood the hard smack.)
Still, if NBC’s approach seems largely stuck in the past, it is also making notable strides. Sure, the network spent a lot of time on the stories of Americans at the Games, including track star-turned-bobsledder Lauryn Williams, who became only the fifth athlete to win a medal in both the Summer and Winter Olympics. But they weren’t just cheering for the home team: Play-by-play commentator Leigh Diffey almost screamed himself hoarse over both Russian bobsledder Alexander Zubkov and Canadian pilot Kaillie Humphries, though each defeated Americans to grab gold.
So what if the sledders were sleeping by the time the races aired in prime-time on NBC? They still made for gripping drama. And besides, TV programs have always been a packaged good.