NBC’s Olympics Coverage Should Do Away With Tape Delay


They’ve been warming up all week. But this morning NBC kicked off its Olympics coverage in earnest from the temporary mountaintop studio of the Today Show. The network’s decision to put Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira 3800 feet above Vancouver on Grouse Mountain was brilliant. The mountain agreed to open to the public around the clock (snow problems aside) so that the live broadcast at 4am Pacific Time wouldn’t have a lifeless backdrop.

When they want to be outside with the crowd, they’ve got a ski hill and skating rink. Inside, they’ve built a full interview set. And I love the name the NBC technical crew has given the temporary studio in my native country. They’ve replaced New York’s “Studio 1A” with “Studio 1-eh.” (Al Roker relayed that clever name on air this morning, giving credit to veteran NBC cameraman Bob Jaeger.)

The Today Show is one of my favorite parts of the NBC Olympics lineup. It’s the perfect showcase for some of the local color and Olympic history that would seem intrusive in the middle of event coverage. The morning-after interviews with winning athletes are a perfect complement to the network’s primetime showcase.

It’s just too bad NBC insists on still clinging to its tape delay philosophy for the Winter Olympics because there’s so much to like about the way the network covers the games.

NBC has 835 hours of Olympic programming scheduled on its television networks. That’s twice as much as viewers were offered for Turin’s games four years ago. And if there ever was a year for NBC to give up on its tape delay, this was it. The growth of online news and the rise of Facebook and Twitter make the network’s tradition of holding back video from key events for hours seem more ridiculous than ever. And this year would’ve provided an easy transition, thanks to Vancouver’s proximity – every event occurs at a reasonable hour for coast-to-coast live coverage.

I understand how the policy started. When NBC began its current run of Olympic telecasts in Seoul in 1988 it didn’t have to compete with a thousand other news sources. Advertisers liked the idea that a huge audience could gather each night for a tightly-packaged telecast. But as each year passes, more viewers get early access to results and the delay policy grows more insincere.

I’m headed to Vancouver Saturday morning and fully intend to tweet (@patkiernan) and blog from the events I attend. Should I consult the NBC schedule to see if I’ll be ruining someone’s primetime viewing enjoyment by sending an update about the biathlon on Tuesday? Even if I decided to delay a tweet for NBC’s benefit, do I delay until 8 pm ET for the Eastern US audience, or am I compelled to hold back until the news is out on the West Coast?

In fairness to the network, there are plenty of second-tier events available live. But it has used its clout to push many events into the 8-to-11 pm ET window. Monday’s luge event, for example, starts at the spectator-unfriendly time of 5 pm PT. I’ll be attending the event at Whistler and shivering in the dark just so NBC can put a “live” bug in the corner of the screen. I’d feel better about that if the network at least delivered the luge-in-the-dark telecast to the entire country live. But it’s only the Eastern and Central time zones that get that privilege. Western viewers see the “live” marquee events on a further tape delay – something that seems to have entirely escaped the network’s promo producers:

By now you’ve heard that NBC overpaid for the Vancouver 2010 TV rights, so the network has little interest in departing from its proven program strategy. In a Wall Street Journal story this week, NBC noted that three-fourths of its US TV audience is in the Eastern time zone. But there are plenty of viewers interested in finding a way around the delay. The Seattle Times published a lengthy Q and A for viewers looking to circumvent the blackout. (Short summary of the story is that you’re stuck with whatever NBC gives you.)

A solution does exist, if the executives at NBC are interested. Canada’s broadcasters do great ratings with a hybrid schedule that delivers every big event live as it happens, and then repackages the big moments into a primetime show. CTV will keep its primetime show fresh by bringing winners into the studio for live interviews to follow the replay of the daytime events. The athletes have often been whisked from venue to studio and it’s a joy to watch their reaction as they see the coverage of their win for the first time.

From the early indications on Today, it’s clear that NBC is spending the money to deliver a great product with its Vancouver 2010 coverage. I don’t have access to the viewer research that leads the network to believe the time delay is its only option, but in the long run I think the network needs to acknowledge that the tape delay is as outdated as the term “tape delay.” (We use video servers to record most programming now.)

The 2012 Summer Games will be in London, with live events coming from a time zone perfectly suited to daytime programming in the US. Millions more will be plugged into mobile devices and social media by then. It will be the perfect time for NBC to make the switch to live feeds for all.

TV newsman Pat Kiernan picks his favorite stories from the morning papers each weekday on NY1 News and PatsPapers.com. He’s known to VH1 fans as the host of World Series of Pop Culture. Twitter: @patkiernan

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