The sale of the network, the departure of Dick Ebersol and a $223 million loss on the 2010 Games weren't enough to get NBC out of the Olympics business. It was announced Tuesday that the network won bidding for the American broadcast rights to the four Olympics between 2014 and 2020, beating out competing bids from ESPN and FOX.
NBC's deal, the first major sports package negotiated under new Comcast ownership, is reported to be in excess of $4 billion for the four events and includes a $200 million sponsorship from GE.
With details still trickling out about NBC's plans for those four Olympics, Fourth-Place Medal looks at the pros and cons of Tuesday's announcement for American viewers.
• NBC's sports coverage is better. "Sunday Night Football" is the best sports broadcast on television. The network's broadcasts of Wimbledon and golf's U.S. Open are the highlights of those sports' respective seasons. In terms of production, NBC is top-notch. There are plenty of legitimate complaints about the network's coverage (and we'll get to them) but how it looks and sounds isn't one of them.
FOX dumbs down sports for the viewer and thinks cluttering the screen with graphics and adding whooshing sound effects enhance the broadcast. ESPN is all about promoting ESPN. Though the network's coverage of the 2010 World Cup proved it could be restrained, there's a difference between showing three, uninterrupted soccer games every day and coordinating between dozens of live events.
• Hosts/announcers. This plays into the last one. Bob Costas gets a lot of flak from snarky types who don't like the sweaters and fireside chats and how he and NBC turn the Olympics into a schmaltz-fest. Ask yourself, though, were the alternatives any better? ESPN hosts are either professional and slightly boring (Bob Ley, John Saunders) or they're Chris Berman and Stuart Scott. FOX's best one, James Brown, left for CBS years ago. Try to name the guy who's the studio host for the network's NFL coverage. Even if you know it's Curt Menefee, I bet you had to think about it for a second.
Had another network won Olympic rights, there would have been plenty of defections of talent. The big names like Costas may not have been going anywhere. Analysts who specialize in a single sport (think Rowdy Gaines for swimming and Dick Button for figure skating) would have had nothing to do at NBC without an Olympics to call and would likely have jumped at an offer from FOX or ESPN had one been made. Still, having them there is comforting. They're good at what they do. And the thought of Gus Johnson yelling over speed skating races in 2014 would have given me nightmares until then.
• NBC is changing. The network said Tuesday that every event from each of those four Olympics will be available live on some platform. (Streaming Internet video seems the most likely.) With that announcement, the biggest complaint about NBC's coverage is wiped away.
• Tape delay, tape delay, tape delay. Streaming or not, it still sounds like NBC plans to tape delay television broadcasts. ESPN said in its bid that it would show all events live and compile a primetime compilation for the evening. If I'm reading between the lines of NBC's statement correctly, the network plans to stream some events live on the Internet and then hold its television broadcast until primetime. An improvement, but not the ideal.
Under Ebersol, NBC was notorious for tape delaying Olympic coverage until primetime, seeing it as the best way to attract viewers in the most profitable advertising time of the day. When Usain Bolt broke the world record in the 100 in Beijing, viewers here had to wait nearly 10 hours to watch it on TV. In the digital age of the Internet and Twitter and Facebook, that wasn't going to fly for too much longer.
The problem is that for all the carping, the tactic worked. NBC's ratings on the West Coast (where all events on the main network are tape delayed) outpaced those on the East Coast. People still watched the second week of Beijing coverage even though it was mostly pre-recorded. This won't be as big a problem in Rio for 2016 because the city's time zone (one hour ahead of New York) will allow most primetime coverage to appear live. In Sochi, it will be.
Maybe by 2016 the viewing experience on our computers will be equal to watching on TV. For now, streaming is an acceptable, if lesser, option.
• Lack of Disney involvement. In a statement released after the bidding, ESPN expressed regret that it didn't place the winning bid and gave a hint at what, beyond billions, that it would have done for the Games. "We put our best foot forward with a compelling offer that included the enthusiastic participation of all of The Walt Disney Company's considerable assets," the statement said. Participation of all Disney assets? Does that mean some of the creative minds at the company could have been tasked to come up with better Olympic mascots than these creepy things?