On the morning of Sept. 15, I was searching for a lost slipper with The Today Show blaring on the TV when it hit me: It's Friday night in Sydney. Hadn't the Olympic flame been lit for several hours?
Turns out, it had. But Today didn't show the colorful parade of athletes streaming into the Olympic stadium or the emotional moment as Aboriginal runner Cathy Freeman took the torch its final paces. That might have distracted from Al Roker's five-day forecast. More important, NBC was saving those dramatic images for its prime-time audience, 12 hours later.
That's just one of my gripes after Week One of NBC's "Let's Go to the Videotape" Olympics coverage, which has been exhaustive and heart-rending, but never live. Another? Programming aimed at my tear ducts. The Olympics generate plenty of their own drama and pathos. But NBC is going for the big boo-hoo about every 15 minutes. While its against-the-odds profiles of athletes are sometimes smart and edgy, too often they're overly dramatized. To wit: A Hallmark card from the stable about a husband-and-wife equestrian duo who leap life's hurdles together.
That's a small gripe, however, compared with my aversion to watching a sporting event 12 hours after the fact. Certainly, NBC has its reasons for turning these Olympics into the wait-and-see Games. For one, its prime-time mix of personality profiles and snippets of competition may be the only way to attract the huge audience it needs to cover its tab. "It's the only sporting event in America that draws a higher percentage of women viewers than men," says David Neal, head of production for NBC Olympics. "What that tells us is it's not enough to appeal just to hard-core sports fans."
Back in 1995, NBC bet heavily on the Games, plunking down $3.5 billion for the U.S. rights to the next five Olympiads, starting with Sydney. The sure-fire ratings winner of the lot will be the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, the last Games on U.S. soil for perhaps the next decade. Sydney, in contrast, figured to be a network exec's darkest night. Kangaroos and koalas don't compensate for the 15-hour time difference between the South Pacific and audiences waiting breathlessly back in the U.S. A women's soccer game kicking off at 8 p.m. in Sydney starts at 5 a.m. on the East Coast.
SLICED AND DICED. The strategy of NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol has been to carve up the country into discrete viewing groups and feed each a distinctive Olympics diet. Flagship NBC is the so-called family channel--Olympics Muzak, if you will. MSNBC's and CNBC's coverage is pegged to more serious fans--those interested in watching women's soccer from first kick to final whistle. Finally, there's NBCOlympics.com, the one place the network operates in real time. The Web site continuously posts scores and keeps tabs on the race for gold medals. (ESPN.com, CBSSportsline.com, and many other first-rate sites do the same.)
This multi-pronged approach has succeeded with at least one audience: advertisers. The Olympic torch was still unlit when NBC gleefully announced that ad sales had topped $900 million, up a robust 32% from the $680 million the Atlanta Olympics took in. Subtract the $705 million NBC paid for the Sydney Games, and you've got a tidy profit.
But are U.S. audiences buying the all-tape, all-the-time format? Early indications aren't that promising. For the first two nights, Sydney's ratings were 30% lower than Atlanta's. Opening Ceremonies ratings were even worse, down 47%. Maybe viewers are just warming up. Or maybe the audience is sending Ebersol a message: Bring us the Olympics live--even if that means middle-of-the-night live.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corp., bless its soul, is carrying real-time Olympics. "Our philosophy has always been to go live," says Nancy Lee, executive director for CBC Sports. "If you're in Detroit, Buffalo, or Seattle and you want to watch, you can get it." Hmmm. Unless half the male population of America is already there, maybe I can snag a hotel room in Buffalo.