I’ve never hid my opinion of NBC’s coverage of the Olympics and track and field. I think it’s remarkably poor, jingoistic and antiquated. (Note: many of the announcers are quite good, but TV is a producer’s medium and that’s where the problems lie.)
Last night we learned something that finally sent me over the edge. NBC will not live-stream the Olympic Trials marathons over the internet. This was discovered by Let’s Run cofounder Weldon Johnson in a rather casual way via e-mail with the meet director.
(If you want to express your outrage, TrackFocus tells you where to send it.)
There are three reasons we expected a live stream to happen. One is that NBC did live streams of both trials races in 2008. We all simply assumed that it would happen again this time around. Another is that NBC will be live-streaming all events during this summer’s Olympics, and it only seems like good business and good planning to do several dry runs long before the big show comes around.
But the third, and the most frustrating, is that this is 2011. The race will happen early in 2012. It is the age of the internet and information travels almost at the speed of light. Anyone who does not recognize this is hopelessly stuck in the past, or willfully ignorant, or both.
This is just one more example of how NBC might be track and field’s single biggest domestic obstacle to realizing its potential as a spectator sport. In almost every conceivable way, the Peacock is living three or four decades in the past (and it’s not just in coverage of track, as shown by the perennially-awful ratings of the network as a whole).
The unfortunate thing is that NBC calls the shots in television and online coverage of track and field in the USA. It holds the rights to the Olympics, which also gives it the rights to the Olympic Trials, and those two things are by far the biggest events in any quadrennium. It has the rights to the IAAF Diamond League and the New York City Marathon. Everything else in this country is either college track (NCAA Championships, SEC on ESPN, Big Ten Network) or air time bought by USATF (VISA Championship Series), and they merely follow NBC’s format set out at the big events.
NBC Sports programming directors must think that live-streaming the Olympic Trials marathons will cut into TV ratings. What they fail to realize is that since it’s not live, it doesn’t matter. Sports that are not aired live will have poor ratings, regardless of whatever else happens. Real fans will follow the races via Twitter and Facebook and internet message boards. Before the TV show ever begins, the results will be not only be at LetsRun.com and TrackandFieldNews.com, but at ESPN.com and SI.com.
All this is something that ABC/ESPN knows that NBC does not. It’s why the “worldwide leader in sports” has live coverage of all its overseas soccer and golf programming. To give you an idea of just how knuckleheaded the Peacock execs are, look no further than the recent Presidents Cup in Australia. Despite the fact that lots of tournament play took place in U.S. prime time, the live coverage was relegated to the Golf Channel and NBC replayed the same coverage the following afternoon.
This, however, isn’t the only way that NBC’s coverage of track and field is antiquated. The very model used to cover everything save the sprints and hurdles is older than I am. An analysis courtesy of my brother:
The whole thing (save for the sprints and the short hurdles) has the feel not of covering a sporting event, but of those highlight shows that were how fans saw a lot of stuff in the era predating ESPN and Sportscenter.
In the ’60s and early ’70s, that’s how college football got disseminated (when only one game a week on the tube nationally was the norm). On Sunday morning you’d get a package of highlights narrated by Bill Flemming, and Lindsay Nelson would announce a highlight review of the Notre Dame game in the sort of manner that’s now mainly seen on coaches’ shows.
Or think of This Week in Baseball… that’s exactly what it feels like when the coverage of Jesse Williams’ and Dwight Phillips’ gold medals is reduced to coverage of one jump out of the competition in something they baldly label “Field Report,” complete with a cheesy graphic.
Yes, it’s tape-delay coverage, but they might as well label it the “[track and field] highlight show,” like ABC/ESPN does with their compressed tape-delay coverage of the British Open in the late afternoon on Sunday.
Of course NBC is living in the 70s and 80s. That’s the last time they had good ratings. The entire network, sports programming and otherwise, is lost and has no idea what people want to see.
I don’t think NBC cares a whit about developing a fan base for any of its “Olympic” sports. If it did, it would develop a better production model. It would carry more than four Diamond League meets (and not tape-delay the last two by large amounts of time). It would use what muscle it has to get wide cable carriage of Universal Sports—significant muscle now that Comcast owns the Peacock—instead of asking its viewers to beg on its behalf.
By its close connection to the Olympics, the IAAF is more or less stuck with NBC. FIFA doesn’t have to be, and it’s no accident that the soccer organization isn’t. Several years ago, FIFA leadership, at the behest of CONCACAF General Secretary Chuck Blazer, actually screwed NBC out of an accepted bid to broadcast the 2010 World Cup (according to the book Those Guys Have all the Fun). Blazer, and soccer fans in general, were afraid that NBC would ruin the World Cup in the same way that they have ruined the Olympics—and with it, track and field.
If I understand correctly, FIFA ended up taking a slightly smaller amount of money from ESPN, but went with them because ESPN a) was willing to broadcast all the games live and in full, and b) had an interest in developing a soccer fan base rather than simply showcasing the main event and nothing else. Sound familiar? And if FIFA took less money, you know they had serious concerns. Their plan turned out well; coverage of and interest in soccer has expanded greatly in the USA over the last five years. FIFA’s leaders knew that they’d make more money in the long run by partnering with a network that wanted to develop interest in their sport.
We in track and field don’t have that now, nor are we going to have it any time in the near future.