NBC's coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, begins tomorrow with a tape-delayed broadcast of the preliminary rounds of snowboarding, freestyle skiing, and figure skating.
Soon after, complaints will start to show up on social media from a small but very vocal minority of people about NBC's failure to understand the internet, and its greed in saving these events for primetime, when it can sell the priciest advertising. These people may even revive the now infamous #NBCfail hashtag that went so viral during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. They will probably get a lot of media attention.
But this complaint makes almost no sense, and we should stop taking the complainers seriously. They don't actually have a problem with the availability of the Olympics, which they can watch live online; they have a problem with people who still watch television in the incipient digital age.
Despite Sochi's being nine hours ahead of New York, most of NBC's 500 hours of TV programming will air live across its suite of cable networks, which includes NBC Sports Network, CNBC, MSNBC, and USA Network. For the first time ever, every phase of all 15 events will be available for live streaming via NBCOlympics.com or the NBC Sports Live Extra mobile app for authenticated cable subscribers. The only part of the Olympics that won't be available in some form live will be the opening ceremonies, which will air in primetime on Friday evening.
"We think it's very important that we package that event with all the Russian culture and history that's being creatively expressed, much of that program might not make sense to viewers without the context that Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira are going to bring to that," said NBC Sports Group Chairman Mark Lazarus. "We think it's very important that we do that, and it's the right model. It worked for us in London, and it's going to work for us again."
(There is one small catch: while most full-event replays and highlights will be available on demand immediately following their conclusion, some will only be available towards the end of the competition day, around 3:30 pm ET, and highlights will not be available on demand until the event is shown to NBC's primetime TV viewers.)
The basic complaint with NBC is that the company, while adjusting to the digital age with its live streams, is also trying to run a business. And in fact, there are a number of reasons why NBC airs Olympics coverage on tape delay during primetime — not just for these games, but for past and future ones as well — among them the time difference, the return on investment, and availability to hardcore fans to stream events live with a verified cable subscription. The main one is that its large television audience seems to appreciate it.
NBC's business logic is rather straightforward: this isn't a charity. Neither, for that matter, are the Games, despite the International Olympic Committee's public line that it is a high-minded sort of parallel government body. The reality is that both entities, for better or worse, are in this for the money.
Once critics have realized they can stream the Olympics, their chief gripe is that by requiring a cable subscription to stream events live, NBC is taking advantage of those who lack one by depriving them of the chance to watch in real time either digitally or on its cable networks and forcing them to watch the tape-delayed primetime broadcast. They argue that since broadcast networks are supposed to be freely available and the Olympics are a global bonding experience, NBC is being particularly evil for not airing live programming around the clock on its main network.
The answer to that is in the numbers. In 2011, after being acquired by Comcast, NBC agreed to pay $4.38 billion for the U.S. rights to broadcast the Olympics beginning with Sochi this year and continuing through the 2020 games. Prior to that, the network paid $2 billion for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games and the 2012 London Summer Games, or a combined $6.38 billion for a decade's worth of Olympics coverage. Yet, NBC lost more than $200 million on the Vancouver Olympics and only turned a small profit on the London Games. (The network has sold around $800 million in advertising for Sochi and expects to again turn a small profit this time around.)
More important, NBC went from expecting a roughly $200 million loss of the London Olympics to turning a small profit not because people suddenly signed up for pay-TV service en mass to watch them, but because massive numbers of viewers tuned in for its tape-delayed primetime broadcasts. Despite the seemingly apparent displeasure with tape delays, the London Games ended up averaging 31 million viewers per night in primetime and 219.4 million viewers overall, making it the most-watched event in U.S. television history. (The 111.5 million viewers who watched last week's Super Bowl ranks as the largest audience for an individual show.)
Part of the reason why NBC's primetime broadcasts were so successful was because the tape delays allowed its production team to create stories and narratives around the athletes and competitions. They were able to turn the athletes into characters in a compelling drama by highlighting their backstories, rivalries, motivations, training regimes, and the like. The Olympics in essence became television's ultimate family-friendly form of entertainment.
The second reason the tape-delayed programming performed so well is precisely because people were able to stream it live first. What basically happened is that die-hard fans who tuned into the live stream not only ended up watching it again on TV, but also raised the interest of casual viewers through the excited conversations on social media about what they just witnessed. The reality is that most people didn't feel cheated by social media spoilers. Instead, they got them to tune into events that they might not have otherwise.
The real irony of the social media complaints is that most of the vitriol directed at NBC's tape-delayed primetime broadcasts is being done by the people most likely to be "cord-cutters" or "cord-nevers," the ones who have fast broadband connections to stream Netflix or Hulu and generally don't pay much attention to broadcast television. This isn't the Bob Costas crowd. And these viewers are well aware that they can stream any event they want live and have the technical capacity do it. Their problem is that NBC requires them to have a cable subscription. (NBC executives said after the London Games that they were willing to explore, with cable partners, offering an online-only streaming package for future Olympics to non-cable subscribers.) Even so, it's hard to fault NBC has for trying to recoup the multibillion-dollar investment it made in the Olympics, and if that means tape-delaying events until primetime on one platform, that's fair enough.
There will be plenty of reasons over the next 18 days to find fault with NBC. It will promote its other programming to the point of exhaustion. It will shove Ryan Seacrest and Matt Lauer and other talent into our faces until we want to punch its executives in theirs. Its broadcasts will sometimes be pitched at an audience whose tastes puzzle twentysomethings. The live streams will have technical glitches. NBC will get many things wrong about Russian history, and likely gloss over the country's political corruption, campaign against LGBT activism, and civil unrest. And when these things occur, do tweet about them under the #NBCfail hashtag. They are fair game and should be exposed.
But please stop complaining about the tape delay.
Correction: This post has been changed to reflect the fact that only some Olympics events will not be available on demand if the live stream is missed until after the competition day ends at 3:30pm ET and highlights will not be available until after they air on NBC in primetime. It previously said that all Olympics events were subject to that restriction.