The following article about NBC'S Olympic coverage appeared in ESPN SportsZone
today. Eventhough it isn't exactly soccer related, I though you mihgt like to
know why we probably won't get soccer or any other competitive Olympic sports
coverage in our lifetime. For those of us who don't like NBC's strategy,
maybe we should just turn off the T.V and make sure our wives, girlfriends,
mothers, or daughters do it too.
NBC strategy? Tell me a story
By Kelly Hayes
Special to ESPNET SportsZone
And the Gold goes to ... Market Research.
Against the tragic backdrop of the events in the Centennial Olympic Park
critiques of NBC's coverage of the Games may appear trivial.
Saturday morning's tragedy will forever be very real to
their families, and those who were unlucky enough to choose Jack
Mack and the Heart Attack as their late night entertainment.
But for those of us who witnessed it on television and only felt the boom
through our Sony's, it will, sadly, evolve into just another chapter in the
lore of the Olympics. But, in the words of Francois Carrard, the IOC's chief
operating officer and paraphraser of Avery Brundage: "The Games will go on. I
repeat: the Games will go on." So, too, will the eminently successful
"documentation" of those Games by the National Storytelling Company.
For, you see, telling the story and milking the drama is what the television
version of the Olympics is all about. And if you don't like it get used to it,
because this is the blueprint for the next three Olympics. At least.
These Olympics have been the most successful in history. Ratings have gone
through the roof. Several nights have received ratings over 20.0 and in
television parlance that's a perfect 10. NBC's *** is more impressive
than any gold medal. Ask network president Robert Wright if the reality of the
ratings has exceeded his wildest dreams and all you'll get is a beaming smile.
NBC will use these ratings as benchmark to sell the remaining Olympics they
have in their stable. From now through the Games in 2008 the network has a
success story to point to in every package presentation made to future
Not that they will have to sell too hard. Any advertiser who anted up a cool
half-mil for a 30-second spot is sitting smug, knowing they made a great deal.
All hail the ratings king.
How did NBC do it? Not to demean in any way the tireless talents behind the
cameras, in the edit facilities or in front of the microphones, but the
ratings victory is a win for the research folks. And I don't mean those who
find out who won the equestrian in Stockholm.
The blueprint for the big numbers was determined when NBC research polled
10,000 people long before the Games and discovered the path to television's
gold-medal podium was to make the Olympics a "family" event.
And the universal truth in prime time (Monday Night Football being the
exception that proves the rule) is: Families watch what the women in the
household want to watch. So what do women want? Gymnastics and drama.
Preferably both at the same time.
You'll notice they have gotten exactly what they want. Not only did NBC
features unit (under producer Lisa Lax) create 140 athlete profiles that drip
drama and emotion, but the gymnastics events have aired at just the right time
on just the right nights to guarantee a huge audience. Couple that with the
jackpot night when Kerri Strug combined gymnastics with high drama and --
Shazam -- ratings to die for.
Of course, the "just the right time" part can be chalked up to the magic of
television. Emphasizing drama over reality, the storytellers of NBC have
gerrymandered the order and timing of events to fit the "wouldn't it be
something if..." dreams of the studio brain trust.
Nothing wrong with it, they argue. They make the case that this is television
and it is the nature of the beast to rig things so that drama is paramount
just so long as it sticks to the "plausible" truth. It's not
like giving Charles Van Doren the answers for God's sake.
But it does distort things. By taking liberties with the events in the name of
dramatic effect and pre-determining programming based on audience research,
NBC has altered the way we watch the Olympics.
The thing is, they have just been so damned successful. In Sydney, if you want
more baseball and boxing than ballroom dancing (which has been proposed as an
Olympic event), you better hope they revive the fabled triplecast because
primetime will again be reserved for the events most likely to grab the gals.
Televised coverage of the Olympics today is not about showing a broad spectrum
of competition, as it happens, from all the venues, featuring athletes from
all the countries. Rather, it's about setting a strategy months in advance,
then selecting the events and telling (creating?) the stories to meet that
NBC has been right on in implementing their strategy. The numbers don't lie.
As the ratings rise, so too does the smoke from*** Ebersol's victory cigar.
Don't for second think he's going to mess with a winner.