SBJ/August 13-19, 2012/Media

Prediction: London the last hurrah for tape-delayed Olympics

John Ourand
During the first week of the Olympics, when #NBCFail was trending on Twitter, NBC executives were frustrated that the social media buzz focused on the tape-delayed broadcasts.

They felt they were not getting enough credit for the strides they took to put content on digital and mobile platforms. The strategy of making every event available live online has never before been tackled during the Olympics. NBC’s extensive mobile apps have never been used for the Games, and the idea of quickly turning around highlights for video-on-demand never has been considered before.
The frustrations were valid. NBC’s coverage of the London Olympics looks nothing like previous Games. NBC should get more credit for embracing online and mobile applications as much as they have this year. Still, there’s room for improvement. I expect NBC to make a few changes by the time the Winter Games in Sochi come around in 2014.

It’s finally time for NBC to retire the idea that tape-delayed telecasts drive prime-time ratings.

I know the Olympics’ prime-time TV viewership is on pace to set an all-time high. And I know it’s risky to make a bet on a $1.2 billion investment, which is what NBC paid for rights to the London Games.

But all evidence suggests that prime-time viewership will not be hurt significantly by live coverage earlier in the day.
Arguments for keeping the tape delay in place has the feel of the mid-1990s, when TV executives worried that putting too many events on cable would cut into prime-time telecasts. Later, TV executives worried that too many live events online would cut into prime-time viewership.

Neither claim is true. NBC’s own research backs up my view. It has found that people are more likely to watch a prime-time tape-delayed telecast when they already know the results of the event. All the spoilers on Twitter and Facebook this year helped NBC market its prime-time telecast.

Why not show an event like a marquee swimming race live on one of its cable channels? NBC could still tell stories and add context to its prime-time show.

I predict that NBC will hold back fewer events for prime time from Sochi in 2014. The Summer Games in 2016 shouldn’t be a problem, since Rio de Janeiro is roughly in the same time zone. Who knows how we’ll be watching the 2018 and 2020 Games. But I don’t expect tape delay to be a big part of it.

NBC’s online programming has not been up to par.

It’s great that NBC has made every event available live online. But it’s not enough. The user experience is basic and far below the expectations I have for programming that carries the NBC Sports brand. Much of the video I’ve seen has no announcers and offers no replays. NBC should aspire to do more than a bare-bones online offering.

Internet users have expectations when they watch online video, like the ability to pause, rewind or watch a replay.

If you were 10 seconds late to the 100-meter dash — or if you experienced buffering during it — you were out of luck. You’d have to wait for NBC’s prime time. That’s not how Internet users are conditioned to watch video.

In Sochi, I expect NBC to put more of its production values into its online experience, even something as simple as voice-overs from New York-based announcers.

NBC should be proud of the amount of users it brought to NBCOlympics.com. It started slowly. I heard from many savvy Internet users early on about too much buffering and stopped video. One respected media industry veteran said his cable provider, Comcast, wound up doubling his Internet speed at no extra cost. After the opening weekend, the executive said the online video worked fine.

NBC and its distribution partners fixed the problems quickly so that by the Olympics’ second week, I heard almost no complaints about the quality of its online offering.

The two shining stars of these Olympic Games have been NBC’s video-on-demand offering and distributors’ authentication processes. Both worked surprisingly well.

I heard virtually no complaints from people logging into NBC’s online coverage. Distributors, like Comcast, made it simple and easy for its subscribers to authenticate. By the time Sochi rolls around, authentication will not be an issue. This is a big step forward for TV Everywhere.

Video-on-demand also has been a pleasure. My distributor is Comcast, which makes highlights from every event available by the time I wake up in the morning. My managing editor has Time Warner Cable. He made a good suggestion that the video-on-demand system should show, for example, the entire gymnastics program in addition to cutting individual highlights. This would enable him to watch longer, without having to navigate through VOD every two minutes.

But that’s a minor quibble. By Sochi, I expect VOD to offer more content and allow users to navigate it easier.

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.

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