LONDON – Initially it seemed like the relentless Twitter-based gripes about NBC’s coverage might go down as a tipping point in the way the Olympics are presented to a television audience in future years.
The backlash about NBC’s decision to air last Friday’s Opening Ceremonies on tape delay was immediate, and it grew after NBC’s vaguely patronizing explanation that it was “too complex” to stream live online. NBA star Dirk Nowitzki, a.k.a. @swish41, summed up the Twitter consensus on his feed:
Can’t believe NBC is not showing opening ceremony live... That’s brutal
A day later, the backlash became downright fierce when the 400-meter individual medley, featuring the much-anticipated first showdown between Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, was also shown on delay in prime time. The hashtag #NBCFail exploded, and a hilarious parody account, @NBCDelayed, which mocked NBC about historical events the network was just getting around to showing, was born.
(Example: @NBCDelayed: BREAKING: Roman Emperor Theodosius bans Olympic Games, NBC delay to catch up shortly. #394 AD)
That tipping point seemed apparent. The emergence of Twitter as an instantaneous news and information source changed the game, or the Games. NBC was going to have to alter the story-driven, wait-until-prime-time approach that became its trademark beginning with the 1992 Barcelona Olympics under executive producer Dick Ebersol.
But then the Nielsen numbers started coming in — and they were enormous.
The network’s coverage of the Opening Ceremonies drew 40.7 million average viewers, more than the Beijing Games four years ago and the last US-based Summer Games in 1996 in Atlanta. Through the first six nights of coverage, NBC averaged more than 30 million viewers, surpassing Atlanta as the highest rated over the same period.
“The ratings are strong and our business partners are pleased,’’ said Mark Lazarus, NBC Sports Group chairman, during a conference call Thursday. Lazarus added that NBC could break even or make “a little bit of money’’ on the Olympics, a surprising revelation given that losses recently were projected to be as high as $200 million.
“The overwhelming majority of the people are voting with their clickers, mouses, and their fingertips on every device and they’re saying, ‘We’re with you,’ ’’ Lazarus said.
Yes, there have been embarrassing missteps of various magnitudes, and the flaws are real. A short list: Tipping off in a promo that swimmer Missy Franklin had won gold before the event aired, spotty live-streaming, questionable editing (such as inserting a Ryan Seacrest interview of Phelps in a spot during the Opening Ceremonies in which sincere tribute was paid to British terrorism victims), and its role in the brief Twitter suspension of a particularly aggressive critic of its coverage.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be perfect,” said Lazarus, who acknowledged that some of the criticism is justified. “We listen. We read. We understand there are people that don’t like what we are doing, but we think that is a very loud minority and the silent majority has been with us for the first six days.”
He’s right. The outcries on Twitter are those of a vocal minority. As Sports On Earth columnist Joe Posnanski was the first to note Wednesday, 82 percent of US citizens have an e-mail address, and only 8 percent of them are daily Twitter users. Their beef is a legitimate one, certainly more so than those who complain that websites publish the results — actual news — as they happen rather than waiting for NBC’s broadcast.
But until Twitter grows more mainstream, or until viewers send NBC the ultimate message by turning off their televisions and computers, the reality is that a supposed tipping point is not nearly as close as it appeared a few days ago.
Chad Finn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globechadfinn.