London's Paralympics: A Tough Sell in the U.S.

NBC takes heat for its minimal coverage of the games
The closing ceremony for London’s Paralympic Games Photograph by Julian Finney/Getty Images

The 2012 Paralympic Games capped its 12-day schedule on Sept. 9 in London’s Olympic Stadium with live performances by Coldplay, Rihanna, and Jay-Z. The closing ceremony drew a brief mention from NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams the following evening—and that was about it. Over the course of the games, the Peacock aired four hour-long highlight shows on its cable channel NBC Sports Network. Its broadcast network will also run a 90-minute special on Sept. 16. Altogether, that’s four more hours than NBC devoted to the Beijing Paralympics in 2008 but a tiny fraction of the 400 hours that the U.K.’s Channel 4 aired, or the 5,535 hours NBC gave the London Olympics.

South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius won two gold medals
Photograph by Julian Stratenschulte/DPA/ZumaPress

International Paralympic Committee President Sir Philip Craven says he’s not wedded to NBC for future games. “We’ll examine their values as they will examine ours,” Craven told the BBC in London, referring to broadcasters. “If the values fit, we’ve got a chance. If they don’t, we’ll go somewhere else.”

Craven may not have much choice. U.S. broadcasters aren’t fighting for the rights to the Paralympics, which are negotiated independently from the Olympics. “People just assume NBC was the rights holder,” says U.S. Olympic Committee spokesman Patrick Sandusky. “They weren’t.” The USOC stepped in as a buyer of last resort when the IPC failed to secure a commercial buyer stateside, “to ensure that there would be wider exposure for the Paralympic Games,” Sandusky says. The USOC then arranged with NBC to air its 90-minute special and four-hour cable package. In other words, while the network paid the International Olympic Committee $2.2 billion in 2003 for the U.S. rights to the Vancouver and London Games, they got this year’s Paralympics essentially for free. “We were part of a consortium assembled by the United States Olympic Committee that provided the broadest Paralympic coverage in U.S. history,” NBC Sports spokesman Chris McCloskey says. “We are proud of our contribution and hope to be part of Paralympic coverage in the future.”

During the Paralympics, the NBC Sports Network aired such shows as Costas Tonight, Gun It with Benny Spies, and Elk Fever in prime time. Those programs drew viewership in the tens of thousands, according to data gathered by Horizon Media’s Brad Adgate. Those programming decisions are based primarily on advertiser demand, which is largely a function of viewer interest. Apparently, Elk Fever is what the market bears.

Photograph by Xinhua/Eyevine/Redux

“As many cable channels as there are today, it’s hard to understand that [the Paralympics] are not broadcast,” says Harvey Schiller, chairman of management consultant GlobalOptions Group and former head of the USOC and Turner Sports. Schiller says he expects the Rio Paralympics in 2016 will be a different story. “I think there is a growing marketplace,” he says, noting that sponsors will be ready to support the returning veterans that have become a large part of the U.S. team. “NBC or anyone else would do it if they feel that they can sell the inventory.” In London, Craven urged broadcasters, “Take the plunge, take the risk, and then you’ll succeed,” echoing the famous Steve Jobs line that “a lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

Part of the problem, says Schiller, is that the Paralympics often come late to market, when programming schedules are already full. The IPC could remedy that by formally partnering with the IOC, making Paralympics coverage part of any Olympic rights deal. USOC spokesman Sandusky suggests as much without quite saying so. “There are great examples of the IOC and the IPC working together,” he says. “Cities are bidding for the rights to host the Olympic and the Paralympic Games. … They’ve got a good model of working together, and I’m sure there are lots of ways it could work.”

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