I have been watching the olympics faithfully, but not on NBC. It’s one of the unexpected benefits of visiting my homeland, Nicaragua. Unlike NBC, our local licensee, Canal 10, is showing the London games live, and though their commercial breaks are often clumsy, at least they’re not the subject of a widespread backlash, nor has anyone from Canal 10 taken to Twitter to complain about whinny viewers. Nope, that was Vivian Schiller, NBC’s Chief Digital Officer.
I understand tape delays. It’s like Les Moonves says, if you don’t use the tape delay, you wouldn’t have anything to show during prime time. If you make your money from selling commercials, prime time is where you want to show your premium content. The thing is, though, that you can still monetize the olympics while airing the signature events live, and without infuriating your audience. In Canada, CTV is doing just that. Its live telecast of the opening ceremony broke audience records for Canada, just like NBC’s did for the US. The big difference is that while NBC is garnering a lot of ill will from the audience that uses social media, Canadian viewers love CTV. I just wish NBC would stop pretending that tape delays are live. Why not call the olympic prime time coverage what it is, a highlights show?
However, the issue is not just about tape delays. American audiences are using Twitter to complain about NBC’s handling of the olympics as a whole. For instance, their decision to replace Akram Khan’s tribute to the victims of the London bombings of 2005 with an interview with Michael Phelps drew plenty of criticism.
NBC felt the edit was justified, though. It’s something routine, they said. Moreover, they did not stream the opening ceremony because they insist that it was just too complex for the internet. The opener needs context, which their anchors, Meredith Viera, Matt Lauer and Bob Costas would provide . The thing is that the context included memorable gaffes, such as Meredith Viera’s offhand comment about Tim Berners-Lee, and Matt Lauer’s quip about Madagascar. If this was an attempt at humor, Viera and Lauer failed, at least according to those annoyed viewers who took to Twitter.
As if this wasn’t enough, NBC has repeatedly spoiled its own primetime broadcast. The network holds back the main events, such as the Ryan Lochte – Michael Phelps show down in the 400 IM, only to reveal the outcome prior to the telecast. Missy Franklin’s gold medal performance in the pool was likewise spoiled, when the network decided to air a promo of her interview in the Today Show just minutes before showing the actual swim.
Spoling is nothing new. It’s a common activity that has emerged within what Henry Jenkins and others have come to call participatory culture. Spoiling is like a game, a challenge that extends the pleasure that people get out of watching television (see Jenkins, 2006). However, when NBC spoils itself, there is no challenge and no skill required. There is a fundamental misunderstanding of how participatory cultures operate online. These are cultures that take shape because of the technologies that allow people to create, share, and debate easily, and to feel that “their contributions matter” (Jenkins, Purushotma, Clinton, Weigel & Robinson, 2009, p 7).
NBC’s heavy handling of criticism on Twitter shows the opposite. The network clearly underestimated the backlash its complaint against Guy Adams would garner. Alerted by Twitter, NBC filed a complaint against Adams, a freelancer for The Independent, and got him suspended from Twitter for publishing Gary Zenkel’s email address. Zenkel is the president of NBC Olympics, and Adams encouraged irate tweetizens to email their complaints to this NBC executive. This is a violation of the Terms of Service, according to Twitter, though it is debatable that a corporate email should be considered private information. If it is, discontented twitter users didn’t buy it, and neither did The Independent and other critics. In fact, the entire incident was characterized as censorship of the worse variety, and also as hypocritical. After all, Spike Lee was not banned for tweeting what he thought was George Zimmerman’s home address. Twitter took plenty of flack for its role, and it reinstated and apologized to Adams. NBC rescinded its complaint, and now the network admits that they “didn’t initially understand the repercussions” of their action against Adams. That’s a pretty big admission. It makes me wonder if NBC understands how Twitter operates as a culture.
Granted, the peacock network is achieving its ratings objectives, but it has done so at the expense of the goodwill of some of the most media savvy fans of the olympics. These individuals are part of a new type of culture that has been enabled through our ability to connect, access, and share information. Yes, American audiences are watching NBC, unless there are other choices. Some of the more media savvy viewers are already bypassing NBC altogether. It’s not that hard. Just go to Reddit or Lifehacker, or read Jeff Jarvis’ column and you can learn all about it.
It’s obvious that today’s audiences are more savvy and can become vocal quite easily because the tools to express discontent are readily available. It’s the same tools we use to find out the results of olympic competitions before NBC’s primetime telecast. However, NBC goes on, and I can’t help but wonder if the peacock network is intent on matching the infamous Heidi Game of 1968.
To NBC’s credit, they did apologize for the Heidi Game. As of this writing, they haven’t acknowledged the barrage of negative comments posted on their Facebook page, and the only gesture to the audience, as far as I can tell, is that Jim Bell, executive producer of the olympic telecast, has responded to complaints through Twitter. For instance, here’s what he said about spoiling the results.
It’s a start, but is it enough? Bell also shared this entry from Business Insider on Twitter. I don’t think that something titled “Shut your pie-holes, people: NBC’s Olympics Coverage is Perfect” is going to win too many points for NBC. Surprisingly, the thousands of Twitter users availing themselves to the #NBCFail hash tag haven’t latched on to that one.
Let’s just hope that NBC gets better at harnessing social TV for the next olympic games. After all, they did buy the rights until 2020.