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The Olympics Experience I Want

I have been waiting for the Olympics to begin for a long time. I am drawn to the sports – the diversity of the skills on display, the high level of competition, and the powerful emotions behind every run, throw, stroke, spike, vault, lunge, and lift hold my attention for the full two weeks, and inspire me to be active.


I have been waiting for the Olympics to begin for a long time.

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I am drawn to the sports – the diversity of the skills on display, the high level of competition, and the powerful emotions behind every run, throw, stroke, spike, vault, lunge, and lift hold my attention for the full two weeks, and inspire me to be active.

I am intrigued by the global political implications – so many different languages and cultures on display, the pride and the patriotism athletes show as they represent their entire nation, and the ability to use sport to bring war, famine, poverty, AIDS, human rights and the challenges of world diplomacy into clearer focus for so many people who have chosen to ignore them the rest of the time.

I am fascinated by the logistics – the schedule, the geography, the details of the construction, and all the things (like the playing of all the national anthems) that makes the games uniquely complex to conduct yet seemingly effortless to pull off.

And with the XXIX Olympic Games in Beijing, the first in the broadband area, I have something else to pay attention to – the media.

There is nothing new about the Olympic Games being broadcast on television, written about by tens-of-thousands of reporters, or even having scores and highlights posted online in real-time. In fact, as sporting events go, the Olympics offers so many storylines (the Olympics isn’t really one event – every athlete, in every event, is being covered by someone, and watched with interest by people in their home country) that no single organization or medium would suffice. But, as technology evolves, the internet expands, and the silos and borders that represent our traditional media environment break down, the challenges are many, new, and intriguing for sure.

In the United States, the exclusive broadcast rights for the Games were purchased by NBC. Over the course of the next two weeks, they’ll share over 2000 hours of coverage – live and tape-delayed – across all their stations (NBC, CNBC, MSNC, USA, Telemundo, etc.) and online. Much of their prime time coverage, of course, will be tape delayed because Beijing is some 12 hours ahead of the United States (meaning 8pm EST in the United States is 8am in China, the beginning of a new day of competition). Meanwhile, the broadcast rights for every other country in the world has been sold to local and regional providers, like the BBC, Terra (the largest internet company in Latin America) and Organización de Televisión Iberoamericana, the African Union of Broadcasting (AUB) and the South African Broadcasting Corporation Limited (SABC), CCTV in China and so on.

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And that is where it gets interesting.

As the New York Times reported on the first day of the Games, “NBC’s decision to delay broadcasting the opening ceremonies by 12 hours sent people across the country to their computers to poke holes in NBC’s technological wall — by finding newsfeeds on foreign broadcasters’ Web sites and by watching clips of the ceremonies on YouTube and other sites.”

I admit, I was one of those people. I spent much of Friday morning refreshing my Twitter feed hoping to get live updates of the opening ceremonies from friends in attendance at the Birds Nest (and then using my insights to enhance the commentary I provided to my wife, and our two dinner guests, while watching the ceremonies on Friday night). And, though I am consuming as much live coverage through NBC’s TV and Internet coverage as possible, I am also looking at the BBC and other foreign sites for video highlights and context from the preliminary rounds of competition in soccer, swimming, team handball, weightlifting, air pistol, fencing (which, interestingly, was dominated by the United States but still received very little coverage on this continent) and other sports where the US-centric coverage offered by the American media isn’t complete or sufficient.

Even with all the coverage on TV and online from NBC (which thus far, I have to say is better than expected – the notable exception being any appearance by Chris Collinsworth, who I never see as adding value to a broadcast, even when the subject is football, his expertise), the peacock folks doing everything they can, it seems to make it more difficult for me to get my full Olympics fix.

Again, from the New York Times:

“In response, NBC sent frantic requests to Web sites, asking them to take down the illicit clips and restrict authorized video to host countries. As the four-hour ceremony progressed, a game of digital whack-a-mole took place. Network executives tried to regulate leaks on the Web and shut down unauthorized video, while viewers deftly traded new links on blogs and on the Twitter site, redirecting one another to coverage from, say, Germany, or a site with a grainy Spanish-language video stream.”


I am not an expert in television rights, and I am certainly not on the hook for the billions of dollars that NBC has invested in this venture (roughly $900 million alone for the rights to broadcast Beijing, not counting the actual costs for pulling it off). I spend my time exploring how people get and share information in today’s information age and what that means for organizations – of all types and sizes – in terms of communications, engagement, and mobilization. And even without that knowledge, I could have told you that NBC’s plan presented some serious challenges.

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Instead of trying to control every aspect of the information experience around the Olympics, with an iron fist no less, NBC should have focused on creating a better information experience for their audience, with the confidence that we would tune in to see the coverage wherever that experience was available. What does that look like? NBC should be syndicating its coverage to all the US networks who want to purchase a feed, offer online sites willing to embed NBC-driven players the offer to share their favorite highlights, and inviting individuals to pay a small fee to be able to access and customize extra coverage, on their terms.

There are hints that NBC understand this, and is trying to adjust their model. And certainly, NBC deserves a lot of credit for how it has planned its programming (I watched Michael Phelps win his first gold medal last night, live on NBC at around 10pm EST – what a treat!) to deliver as much live programming as possible. But the New York Times article, and other comments on blogs, from conversations I have had with friends in the media business, and my personal observations suggest that NBC is still operating with too much of a finger-in-the-dyke mentality. There is still so much more they can do.

I will keep watching, these games and all those that follow. And the early ratings from the opening ceremonies (34.2 million people in the US, and over a billion people worldwide tuned in) suggest I am far from alone in my commitment as a viewer/consumer. I just hope that NBC and all the broadcast groups around the world will continue to evolve their offering, and work together, to recognize what fans want from their Olympic experience, and try to deliver it. I know I am not alone in that.

(This is cross-posted on my personal blog, www.thinkingaboutmedia.com)

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