“I want it all,
I want it all,
I want it all,
And I want it now”
–Queen, “I Want It All”
Twenty-one years ago Freddie Mercury unwittingly gave the Vancouver Olympics’ television audience its battle cry. We want it all. And we want to see it before someone has a chance to tweet about it.
The 2010 Winter Olympics features fifteen different types of events (e.g., curling). To judge from the coverage the Games have received on the sports blogs, though, no event is more newsworthy than NBC’s churlish decision to deprive us of seeing any of them live. Deadspin, the Lampwick of sports web sites, felt so self-righteously indignant last week that it printed the email address of NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol (The joke’s on you, Deadspin: Ebersol never checks his email).
Children, please. Outrage? Outrage at NBC’s Olympics coverage? Look at us. We are a nation that gets collectively pissed off if our SUVs seats aren’t heated, if our cheesy gordita is not crunched to munch. We are Veruca Salt (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dU7nG3KvZDA). We would do well to take one dose of comedian Louis C.K.’s “Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8r1CZTLk-Gk) rant and down it with a thirsty swig of Grow Up juice.
Commercial television is not a publicly-owned utility, like electricity or the bathrooms at McDonald’s. It is a business (just ask Conan). By showing the premier events in prime-time, be they live or tape-delay, NBC is simply maximizing revenue.
Understand: I, too, would have enjoyed seeing the alpine adventures of the Lindseys, Vonn and Jacobellis, live. While I count Franz Klammer’s downhill run in 1976 and the U.S.A.-Russia 1980 hockey game as the two most exciting sporting events I’ve ever seen on television (even though I was watching both on tape-delay), I realize that we no longer live in an era when you can just turn off the radio to occlude your awareness of current events.
But here is something that only children and Goldman Sachs employees fail to understand: everything comes at a price.
We may prefer to not know the cold, hard facts about televising the Vancouver Games, but here they are: In 2003 NBC bid $2 billion for the rights to Vancouver and the 2012 Summer Games in London. The Peacock outbid the next closest competitor, Fox, by 50% (Fox bid $1.3 billion).
NBC’s offer may have been fiscally reckless. “You have to wonder what possessed them to up the ante in 2003,” Rick Gentile, a former executive producer of CBS’ Olympics telecasts, told the Hollywood Reporter last month.
Perhaps it was irrational exuberance. Reckless optimism. Maybe it was Ebersol’s first- love legacy with the five-ringed spectacle: he got his start in television as an Olympic researcher at ABC at the 1968 Winter Olympics while still an undergrad at Yale (this was back in the days when a network’s under-25 male workforce was not entirely comprised of the progeny of that network’s executives)
The fallout is that NBC is paying $820 million to televise these sixteen days from British Columbia. That cost comes before you factor in the expenses of flying and lodging (and compensating) hundreds of employees, many of them freelancers, to Vancouver and Whistler. Then add the operating expenses. By my count, for example, it required nine cameras, one of them an overhead crane, just to film the heats of Tuesday’s ski cross event.
Read that last sentence again. Nine cameras to cover one event. Everything’s amazing, and nobody’s happy (except the advertisers).
I know, I know: You don’t care. As one friend in the business told me, “I want immediacy.” Naturally, he tweeted that.
But in Vancouver, when anyone on hand can text or tweet the results, when any nitwit can twitpic a photo, NBC’s trump card is its exclusivity of footage.
You may be angry that you didn’t see Lindsey Vonn win gold live. But NBC was willing to wager that you’d still tune in that night to see it. Meanwhile, NBC Universal is airing more than 800 hours of live coverage during the Games, which is more than Salt Lake City and Torino combined.
Still we moan. I woke up Monday to venomous screeds that NBC had the effrontery to air the USA-Canada hockey game on MSNBC while it aired, as one friend put it, “trick-or-treaters on ice” on the network channel. What, may I ask, is the big deal? It’s 2010: Do you not have MSNBC? Then walk over to your rotary phone and call a cable company.
Given the choice, I would have shown the hockey game on NBC. But did having it air on MSNBC preclude me from seeing it? Are we really so spoiled that having to not even get up off our asses, having only to push a button or two on the remote, is such an act of sacrifice?
Here is the reality: If NBC airs a (to use a term they created a decade ago) must-see event live in the afternoon, they lose dollars. Millions of them. Advertiser rates go down if the most anticipated events are not shown in prime time. Even if you work during the day, you can DVR/Tivo that afternoon event and watch it in prime-time. Either way, the prime-time sponsors are deprived of viewers, which means that NBC loses millions. I’m not sure whether your company is in the business of losing money—intentionally, that is—but if it is not, then why should NBC be?
Ebersol, though, has been in the citius, altius, fortius trade more than most current Olympians have been alive. He understands that what makes the Olympics the greatest spectacle in sport is not whether you saw Dutch speed skater Sven Kramer’s DQ as it happened—I’m willing to wager that you’re not in a speed-skating fantasy league—but rather the gut-wrenching futility of Kramer’s quest. The story itself.
What’s most amusing? Two years from now, the Olympics will be waged in London. That’s five hours ahead of the East coast. Will NBC strong-arm the IOC into starting all events no later than 5 p.m. local time, as if the entire Olympiad were one grand Wimbledon? Or will NBC hold coverage of evening events until the following day?
Stay tuned. And keep on bitching, America.