LONDON — NBC has experienced blockbuster ratings for its prime-time coverage of the London Olympics, with an average of 33.6 million viewers tuning in each night. The first 10 days of the Games produced the best viewership totals in 36 years for a non-U.S.-based Olympics.
This would seem to justify NBC's controversial decision to tape delay events, including ones that the network should have a journalistic responsibility to show live; like Usain Bolt's rousing victory in the 100-meter sprint to maintain "fastest man in the world" status.
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American fans that wanted to see that event had to subscribe to NBC's Olympic stream online, search out pirated feeds or wait for video of the race on YouTube — before the IOC wiped them out. These fans had to do the same for Michael Phelps' record-breaking races during Olympic swimming.
When the ratings for the Phelps races remained strong despite fans viewing the events online, NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus told Sports Business Journal: "My guess is that those people who watched it online came and watched it again."
According to a new USA Today/Gallup poll, he might be right; which makes you wonder why NBC isn't showing live events, and why U.S. fans would be so eager to watch the same thing twice, already knowing the outcome?
A new USA Today/Gallup poll, conducted on Aug. 4-5, asked:
"How would you prefer that NBC handle television broadcasts of the most popular events — broadcast them live on television in the U.S. as they happen during the day; broadcast them on tape delay during prime time, and not broadcast them live on television in the U.S. as they happen; or broadcast them live as they happen and then show them again on tape delay in the evening?"
The poll reveals that seven in 10 U.S. viewers "want the most popular events televised both live during the day as they happen and on tape delay in the evening."
[ Related: NBC fakes and enhances the sounds of the Olympics ]
The poll finds that the majority of Americans nationwide (59%) do want both live and taped television coverage of the most popular events -- with relatively few Americans saying they would prefer coverage that is solely live (17%) or solely tape delay (12%). The last figure suggests there is widespread dissatisfaction with NBC's decision to televise the most popular events solely on tape delay in the evening.
Here is how that opinion breaks down demographically — guess those snooty "college graduates" simply don't have the time to watch live Olympic sports, with their "careers" and everything:
It also worth noting that 18- to 29-year-olds are among the least likely to say they are watching a lot of the games on television. It is possible that this tech-savvy demographic group is taking advantage of NBC's live online streaming. At the same time, they still would prefer both live and taped coverage of the most popular events to a degree similar to that of Americans nationwide.
While NBC has claimed record ratings, it's been impossible to glean whether those ratings would remain strong if live marquee events were shown on its networks during the day. This poll would seem to indicate that fans would watch an event live and then watch it again on tape delay if given the chance.
The question is, why?
• Our Spoiler Culture. It used to be so easy to avoid the score of a big game: No radio, no TV, and never pick up the phone until you've watched the tape in your living room. With the advent of social media, that's impossible now — heck, NBC itself is spoiling events on Twitter. We're used to knowing what happens in movies and on TV; but if the journey to that end is entertaining enough, we still watch.
• The Storytelling. NBC's production of the Games is intensely personal when it comes to athletes. They like to tell stories, rather than breaking down the minutia of events. Knowing a spoiler on an event may not matter to a viewer tuning in to see something about hardship, family bonds or overcoming the odds. Plus, with the benefit of hindsight, NBC can better tailor that package to the eventual outcome of the event.
• Our Rerun Culture. As someone that's seen every "Seinfeld" episode about 10 times and can quote episodes of "The Simpson's" from memory, our viewing habits embrace reheated comfort food. Usain Bolt's run was electrifying; seeing it again gives the same instinctive thrill. Fans would seek it out.
• Finally, Have You Watched Television in the Summer? The biggest reason the Summer Olympics thrive on television is because television is atrociously dull during the summer. They give us something for zoning out: a weeks-long soap opera in which we're emotionally invested in the characters. We may hear spoilers about their plotlines during the day, but we're still making time to watch how it plays out at night.
Because of this, I don't believe that NBC's ratings would have suffered with live events coverage during the day.
But based on its ratings, try telling that to NBC.