NBC takes contracts seriously, and the reasons why are obvious. Two years ago, it inked a deal to broadcast the Olympics through 2032 with the whopping price tag of $7.75 billion.
What the network takes less seriously is the social contract that broadcasters make with their audience. When it comes to the global games, NBC has abdicated its responsibilities by regularly employing tape-delay at the expense of the live coverage of history.
Every four years, we hear complaints, and Rio is cause for more of the same. Social media is aflame with second-screen viewers frustrated by NBC’s approach, and Rio’s initial broadcasts earned anemic ratings compared to London’s 2012 Games. Hating on tape-delay has been around long enough to be considered an Olympic sport.
Prioritizing packaged shows over live broadcasting reveals the truth about who, precisely, the commercial network primarily serves. It’s not you and me. Advertisers earn higher ratings and obtain a better return on investment when Olympic programming time-shifts. Moving events around helps NBC capture the casual, channel-surfing viewer clicking between reality TV, cable news, and cooking shows.
NBC’s chief marketing officer, John Miller, candidly admitted the debt the network owes to shows like “Survivor,” “Real World,” and “Big Brother.” Olympic programming, he said, is “sort of like the ultimate reality show and miniseries wrapped into one.” He’s received considerable criticism for the retrograde gender implications of this strategy as well.
Whatever the motivating strategies, Olympic broadcasts are now filled with stylized emotional storylines centered upon heroic resilience and overcoming adversity. The Olympic Games, in this sense, have evolved into simply another audience-tested standardized television product.
History may be marketable — but it isn’t a product.
The essence of broadcasting, since its inception, is its live characteristics. Scholars call the connection catalyzed by broadcasting’s electric ephemerality “liveness” — and it’s a feeling we’ve all experienced. We all intuitively understand the thrill of live broadcasting because we experience it all the time. It’s why we sometimes sit in our cars in our driveways to catch the end of a live radio program, even though we know a recording will soon be available on our phones and computers.
The best live broadcasting makes our pulses quicken and our bodies sweat. The suspenseful climax of a sports contest often provokes a triumphant yell or an anguished cry — responses impossible to re-create with recordings. This is engaged participation, where ourselves and our media momentarily cohere psychically and even physically. We actually become, in effect, part of the program.
The 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin were the first example of this global media phenomenon. An estimated 300 million listeners around the globe caught live broadcasts of their national heroes, and those programs would long be remembered as historic. Ted Husing’s electrifying call of Jesse Owens’s gold medal victory in the 100-meter race was a foundational moment in American sports broadcasting, but other countries had their own memorable moments. Harold Abrahams calling the 1,500-meter race over BBC radio, for example, offered British sports fans an unforgettable experience. “Come on, Jack!” he yelled. “Lovelock leads! Lovelock! Lovelock! C’mon Jack, my God he’s done it! Five yards, six yards, he’s done it! Hurray!”
Millions of Japanese listeners tuned in to the NHK in the middle of the night to catch the duel between Japan’s Hideko Maehata and Germany’s Martha Genenger in the 200-meter breaststroke final. NHK announcer Sansei Kasai screamed to be heard above the roaring crowd in the swimming stadium, repeatedly yelling, “Maehata ganbare! Maehata ganbare!” (“Go, Maehata!”) as the Japanese victor took the first gold medal won by a female in Japanese history. These sports broadcasts transcended sports and became legendarily thrilling moments in global broadcasting history.
This is not to say that time-shifting is an entirely new phenomenon in sports broadcasting. In the 1970s, for example, important championship boxing matches would first be viewed via closed-circuit in theaters and then appear in condensed replays in such venues as “ABC’s Wide World of Sports.” Indeed, it was that program — the brainchild of broadcast genius Roone Arledge — that first truly demonstrated the triumph of narrative over suspense. “ABC’s Wide World of Sports” might broadcast an obscure (and cheap) event like the world lumberjack championships, and viewers would tune in not because they understood the nuance of ax-throwing and log-rolling but because the lumberjack from Norway hoped to earn enough money to pay for his honeymoon.
It was Arledge that took the Olympics from CBS, where Walter Cronkite and the news division often called the action, and gave it the kind of Hollywood production that advertisers loved. Arledge regularly time-shifted events, even historic ones, to maximize audiences. Perhaps the greatest American Olympic sports call — Al Michaels’s legendary “Do you believe in miracles?!” — was actually heard by most Americans during a replay of the Soviet-US hockey match in prime time.
I was alive in 1980, and I remember that everyone knew the USA won that game before it was aired in prime time. But without the Web, and the culture of spoilers we live with today, the game still retained suspense. In a world where everything’s available all the time and spoiler alerts are commonplace, the engagement and participation of live programming have increased attraction.
It is the duty of the broadcaster to put the viewer into the swimming pool, the rowing shell, and on the running track in real time. In watching live, we become participants rather than audiences. CBS used to open its “NFL Today” broadcasts with Brent Musberger intoning, “You are looking live at a sold-out stadium,” and instantly we were in the crowd awaiting the kickoff rather than on our couches in the living room.
But packaged narrative is the safest bet for the advertisers, and old-fashioned nationalistic storytelling has become more difficult. Once upon a time — first versus the Nazis in 1936, then the Soviets throughout the Cold War — competition at the Olympic Games was filled with ideological, and almost spiritual, meaning.
But ISIS has no track team, and the Russians cheat so openly that much of their team is banned from Rio. Coca-Cola and UPS invest too much money to risk losing your full attention on such trivialities as live sporting contests with outcomes they can’t control.
Michael J. Socolow teaches at the University of Maine. His book “Six Minutes in Berlin: Broadcast Spectacle and Rowing Gold at the Nazi Olympics” will be published this fall.