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Complaints about NBC's Olympics coverage are a broken (world) record

Rings of Ire


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For all the chatter about NBC failing to adapt its Olympic coverage to the age of social media, when results are known instantly and spoilers are readily available, it wasn't Twitter or online feeds which flummoxed them Monday.

Between gold-tinted ads for Visa and the breathless promotion of the latest sure-to-fail effort at rejuvenating the sitcom career of a former Friends star, a commercial promised teenage swimming phenom Missy Franklin would join The Today Show on Tuesday morning, being sure to catch the glint off her gold medal.

The problem? NBC had yet to show Franklin's win in the 100-meter backstroke.

Yes, The Peacock ruined the surprise even for its target demographic — which consists wholly of your parents.

It was the most glaring misstep in a first week filled with them by NBC. The network has been pilloried for not evolving with the times, still clinching white-knuckled to the tried model of showing the big events — swimming, track, gymnastics, beach volleyball and the like — tape-delayed in prime time, pretending blissfully that there's no chance its viewers already know the outcome.

Granted, the bulk of the criticism has come from the smirking faces of The Snark Generation: 18-35-year-olds convinced everything should be presented the way they like it presented, even though they refuse to admit they enjoy anything.

"Nobody's going to watch this! We already know how it ends!" they complain. This from the demographic that made Titanic the highest-grossing movie of its day.

Meanwhile, NBC sets ratings records in prime time, even as it shows events with results known by "like, everybody" (cue eyeroll).

To its credit, NBC provides live coverage all day on its family of networks: hours of boxing on CNBC, wall-to-wall tennis on Bravo. They've created enthusiastic audiences for niche sports as people experience for the first time the simple strategy and surprising drama of archery and the made-for-TV, perfect-for-the-Adderall-era sport of team handball.

Online offers hours more coverage of every sport. Yes, young people — who are more prone to consume media on the 'Net — can go online to watch events NBC will show tape-delayed. Then they can stay online and make jokes about NBC showing events — events they've already watched, mind — on tape-delay.

Bear in mind, of course, if NBC wants to show events in prime time — and it does, because that's where the money is made — it has no choice but to show them on tape, unless it can pay the IOC to move their E-Ticket events to the middle of the night London time. Given that the IOC has a reputation for graft and corruption that would give Boss Crump the vapors, let's not rule this out.

And sure, the interstitial features of athletes overcoming adversity come off as syrupy. Post-race questions to swimmers about their suits seem trite. And the interview with gymnast Aly Raisman with her teammate Jordyn Weiber sobbing in the background was as emotionally exploitative as any Lifetime movie.

But remember this, fellow children of the post-Reagan world: NBC, frankly, isn't designing its coverage to appeal to us. Your mom and dad, though? They love it — and they are watching in droves.

This isn't to say NBC hasn't made its share of unforced errors with its TV coverage. Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira's commentary during Danny Boyle's brilliant opening ceremony was supposed to provide "context." Instead, it was excessive, over-the-top explanation — a distracting blow-by-blow reminiscent of experiencing opera over the radio, or Arnold Schwarzenegger's literal-minded ze-cah-blows-up-heeah DVD commentary on Total Recall.

The producers sent in Bob Costas as a pinch hitter, presumably to save the rudderless Matt-Meredith dinghy. But Costas' commentary during the Parade of Nations was the usual World Almanac litany of facts sprinkled with bad puns and obvious observations about each country.

More insidious was NBC's cutting a portion of the ceremony memorializing victims of terrorism. The Peacock chickened out, opting instead to show the vapid Ryan Seacrest interviewing Michael Phelps — an electrifying competitor in the water, but a fish out of it as a talking head.

NBC's Olympic missteps are the inevitable growing pains of a traditional media mammoth. This is a year of demographic tension, with aging (and wealthy) boomers still driving coverage decisions while generations X and beyond push for a system suiting their faster-paced, instant-gratification desires.

At least NBC can confidently promise the younger set fewer tape delays in 2016. Rio de Janeiro, you see, is conveniently just two hours later than Central Time.

And maybe by then, we'll have the smirks wiped off our faces.



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