Another Olympics has come and gone, and with it another round of hand-wringing over NBC’s tape-delay policy, fueled further this time around by NBC’s historically low ratings for its primetime coverage. NBC’s primetime coverage averaged a 14.4 household rating, dominant over the rest of TV but the second-lowest mark for a Summer Games since at least 1968 and probably ever, beating only Sydney in 2000, with declines especially acute among key young-adult advertising demographics. People are still trying to figure out the reasons for the low ratings, especially since everyone expected numbers much closer to London (the highest-rated non-North American Summer Olympics since 1972), but plenty of wags on the Internet and among sportswriters are pointing the finger at NBC’s long-standing and woefully outdated policy of tape-delaying the marquee events for primetime. This, of course, despite the fact that Rio is only an hour off of the East Coast and many events, including the marquee track and swimming events, aired live in primetime, meaning if anything NBC is likely to come to the conclusion that the Games suffered because they were live, not because they were taped. London had no events live in primetime, while NBC pulled strings to get Michael Phelps’ chase for gold into the morning time slot in Beijing, putting it in primetime on the East Coast. The result: London’s completely taped coverage beat Beijing’s mostly-taped coverage, which beat Rio’s mostly-live coverage. It sure looks like tape delay helps NBC’s ratings rather than hurts them, no matter how much people on social media may whine about it.
Further fueling this attitude is the popularity of the Olympics on the West Coast, where even NBC’s live primetime coverage is delayed, and thus where the whining about tape delays reached a fever pitch, but which is perennially the region where the Olympics are most popular, something NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus pointed out. But the dominance of the West Coast is not what it used to be; Salt Lake City and Denver were the top two markets, but San Diego was the only other market in the Pacific or Mountain time zones to crack the top 20. In Beijing, those three markets were joined by Portland in the top 10, and at least in the first week (when Phelps raced), four more West Coast markets placed in the top 17 with higher-than-average ratings, including every West Coast market in the top 40 except for Seattle (which gets the CBC’s live coverage on our cable systems). Had that held, it would seem to suggest that, even holding the time slot and specific games constant, tape delay only improves ratings. Instead, it raises the question of whether the West Coast, and indirectly audiences in general, really are souring on tape-delayed Olympics coverage.
Of course, since 2012 NBC has allowed people to stream almost all the events live regardless of where they live, albeit with the Olympic international feed’s announcers, and NBC claims that when streaming and cable are added in (for the first time ever, NBCSN and Bravo aired coverage in primetime that cannibalized some of NBC’s audience), the Rio Games trailed only London as the second-most watched ever. Streaming, however, remains only a teeny-tiny subset of total viewing, with the total amount of streaming for the entire games accounting for as much consumption as an hour 45 minutes of NBC’s primetime coverage.
But even though live sports streaming in general has a fraction of the popularity of viewing sports on linear TV, that only gets to the real problem with NBC’s “Olympics as ultimate reality show” approach, namely that it treats the Olympics as a type of programming that is slowly losing its relevance to linear television. Indeed, as “cord-cutting” increasingly emphasizes being able to watch what you want when you want, leaving live events as the sole area where linear television retains a purpose in the face of the rise of the Internet, NBC’s approach of streaming the Games live and delaying events to be neatly packaged for its linear network seems to be exactly backwards. As I’ve said before, streaming is not and may never be well-suited for airing major live sports events, and while complaints about Olympic streaming seemed to be more about the experience of getting through NBC’s authentication and its insistence on delaying the Opening Ceremony even on the stream than the sluggishness experienced in London, if NBC continues to insist on streaming as the only guaranteed method of watching marquee events live, it will only put themselves under more and more strain, or alternately greatly increase the cost of delivering the Games smoothly, as streaming becomes more normalized as a means of watching content. On the other hand, it’s disingenuous for NBC to insist on packaging the marquee events for showing when everyone is at home and then require that those events be shown at the same time for everyone even when they’re not live; after all, not everyone has a 9-to-5 job where primetime is the most convenient time to watch the Games. There is a place for recorded, prearranged programming on linear television, but that place is heavily reliant on social media, and social media was disproportionately represented by those that didn’t like NBC’s current strategy.
By the end of NBC’s current contract running through 2032, I could see NBC’s linear channel(s) (assuming it still exists as such) sticking strictly to airing the marquee events live, while also offering its traditional packaged coverage for streaming online whenever someone wants to start it for those who want the Olympics as “ultimate reality show”. That NBC does not do this already, instead forcing both the sports and reality fans to watch tape-delayed, packaged coverage at a specific time in order to maximize ratings for that specific time and sell ads at the highest price, is a sign both of how far streaming has yet to go to achieve normalcy, and a sign of how slowly linear television is embracing its true nature and the key to its future.