Wondering Why Those Olympics Highlights Can Be Hard To Find?

There was a big trade in the sports world this week: NFL announcer Al Michaels went from ABC to NBC for a rabbit, some golf and a highlight to be named later.

Michaels will now call Sunday night football games on NBC with John Madden, with whom he previously worked Monday Night Football games on ABC. In exchange, the Walt Disney Company, ABC's owner, secured the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a Walt Disney-created predecessor of Mickey Mouse, as well as Friday coverage of the next four Ryder Cups, which will air on Disney-owned ESPN.

But there's another aspect of the deal that is particularly relevant today: NBC Universal granted ESPN increased usage of Olympic highlights through 2012. I've long wondered how the Olympics highlights broadcast rights get worked out – there are few television experiences more frustrating than being told about a dynamic Olympics performance only to be provided with still pictures, not video, of the event. But that's long what viewers have experienced, at least if they're not watching the right network.

NBC paid a whopping $2.9 billion for exclusive rights to broadcast the next three Olympics – more than $700 million for this year's installment – and the company is not going to simply give its asset away out of a spirit of bonhomie. That's why a three page legal document landed in my inbox a few weeks ago outlining the rules NBC has set forth for showing highlights. The company's legal team, no doubt, will not be shy about enforcing them. Among the, um, highlights of the document:

  • Other networks must wait until the end of NBC's prime time broadcast in each time zone to use highlights. On most nights the broadcast runs until 11:00 or later.
  • Highlights can only be used within 24 hours of when they air, and must have appeared on an NBC station. (Thus CBS couldn't air video provided by, say, the family member of an athlete, or a foreign network.) An interesting sidenote from the document: Other networks cannot "broadcast, disseminate or otherwise exploit multiple-exposure still images with a refresh rate designed to simulate the look and feel of video."
  • There can be no use of audio or video highlights on the Internet.
  • Highlights can only be shown in news programs – not "news and sports magazines, news promos and updates, entertainment programs, entertainment news programs, magazines and features, sports features and other sports programs or special programs."
  • Highlights can appear in no more than three newscasts per day, and cannot exceed two minutes. Thus a rival network cannot air more than six minutes of highlights per day.
  • There must be a "Courtesy NBC Olympics" credit shown over all highlights.

    Networks can ask NBC for written permission to violate one of these rules, and NBC will sometimes allow exceptions. But its understandably very careful to protect its investment. The company says it expects record viewership for the Torino games. But the Boston Herald reports that the audience trends are not encouraging, and these games are being characterized largely by the lack of buzz that surrounds them. It will be interesting to try and figure out if this year's circumstances make NBC more or less willing to share the good stuff with other networks. One thing's for sure: If you're an Olympics aficionado, the Al Michaels trade is good news. No doubt the curling community is happy it's become that much easier to get their fix.