NBC's Losing Olympic Strategy: Too Little Live Coverage Anywhere, Anytime

Last Updated Feb 16, 2010 2:45 PM EST

Is it too much to ask for more access to real-time Winter Olympic events you want to see -- and not just what NBC Universal thinks you should see?

Even in this anytime, anywhere media age, the answer, sadly, appears to be, "yes."

The $820 million NBC Universal paid for the US rights to the Vancouver Olympics are rife with caveats. None of them bode well for tech-savvy consumers whose expectations far exceed the advertising-saturated event recaps, taped delays, and live slivers of Olympics competition deemed worthy by the media company or some higher power.

Over 17 days, less than 400 hours of live Olympics coverage will be streamed online. Far less will be on TV -- mostly in dribs and drabs. Some can be accessed only if you are an authenticated paid cable subscriber.

NBCU owns a half dozen major cable channels, one major broadcast network and numerous websites including universalsports.com, NBC.com and Hulu.com.

But over the long holiday weekend that coincided with the three opening days of the Winter Games, fans were hard-pressed to find real-time event feeds streaming online or on television as the competition occurred in Vancouver. This irritating phenomenon runs contrary to everything about living digital, and it is getting hammered on Facebook and Twitter, as well as in blogs.

NBCU's live streams of curling and ice hockey-- the most extensive uninterrupted real-time feeds provided -- coincided with the beginning of the shortened work week Feb. 16 - of course.

Most snippets of live television coverage -- particularly of marquee events -- are peppered with advertising and commentary, and scheduled and shaped to support the network's sagging prime time. Much of NBC's other television coverage is archived and packaged under sponsored monikers such as Olympic "morning buzz" or "news center" presented by McDonald's," and "behind the games" presented by Budweiser. Coverage on Universal Sports also is located behind a cable fire wall. No pay, no view.

While NBCU's elaborate features, athlete profiles and interviews, analysis and other background packages are enlightening, they are about as exciting as the seemingly endless replays across the company's web sites and TV outlets (including NBC owned and affiliates TV stations, USA, MSNBC, CNBC and Universal Sports). The absence of real-time coverage that was a critical issue for NBC at the 2008 Beijing Summer Games remains despite Vancouver's Pacific time zone and the ramping of ubiquitous digital media consumption.

This was not supposed to be the case.

After NBC agreed to pay $2 billion for the rights to the 2010 and 2012 Olympics in London, I recall sitting with (then second in command) Randy Falco in NBC's Rockefeller Center headquarter in Manhattan, hearing about the company's grandiose multi-media vision for the games.

One idea was to temporarily transform USA Network into Olympics central during the Games to provide continuous television and online streaming coverage. No such plans materialized. Falco has since left NBC and AOL, where was CEO for a while. NBC CEO Jeff Zucker now calls the shots as the company braces for a new controlling owner Comcast.

NBC continues to promote, package, and present the Vancouver Olympics like it was a made-for-prime time series. NBCU has no one to blame but its unimaginative, conservative self for not making a profit on the Vancouver Olympics. The complex undertaking is slickly packaged, with virtually no spontaneity or real-time feel.

A particularly cruel irony: NBCU is spending big bucks to conduct extensive focus groups during the Olympics to study the ways people consume media. It will generate a first ever cross-media composite rating for its Olympics coverage.

It's clear from NBCOlympics.com's initial coverage -- eclipsing prior online events with 4.8 million viewers accessing 3.1 million streaming videos -- that online, mobile access is already huge.

For all the new apps, clip downloads, medal alerts and other cool antics NBCU has integrated into its mobile and online coverage, it has underestimated consumers' desire for pure, unadulterated real-lime competition. Had NBCU wisely played that card, it might be making, instead of losing, an estimated $250 million on this Olympics.

  • Diane Mermigas

    Diane Mermigas has been a contributing editor and columnist at Mediapost, The Hollywood Reporter and Crain Communications as well as writing for such sites as Seeking Alpha, TrueSlant and BNET. In addition to speaking and television appearances, Diane consults with companies in digital transition, and is completing a book on the future of media.