Never let it be said that broadcasting folk can't do math. The beleaguered NBC, facing embarrassing ratings for its Olympics coverage, came up with an ingenious solution: Don't count the times when no one's watching. The network instructed Nielsen to omit from its ratings calculations the first half-hour of its prime- time broadcast (from 7 to 7:30).
The gambit is usually used by broadcasters to lop off low-rated tail ends of ballgames or awards shows that run long. NBC argues that the trick, which has upped estimated viewership by over a million, makes for an apples-to-apples comparison, since past Olympics haven't included that half-hour (except the high-rated Atlanta games).
Well, whatever; if a little fudging allows NBC to soak a few more dollars out of Visa for its annoying ads, more power to them. But NBC has hardly solved its problem. The factors dragging down its ratings tape delays, too many up-close-and- personals, results being reported by an increasingly fast media (online and off) will still be there (in the case of online media, tenfold) when NBC returns to Athens in 2004. The halcyon days when results were padlocked by a benign media dictatorship are over, thankfully. NBC's real problem is believing that its ratings have nothing to do with the quality of its broadcasts. If it wants to relight its ratings torch in 2004, here are a few suggestions:
1: Go live. I've said it before, I'll say it again. Right now, all NBC has to worry about undermining its tape-delayed coverage is Canadian TV and print stories on the Internet. These are only cracks in a technological dike that's bound to burst open: Future viewers will have more satellite and broadband options, and the network is foolish, in the Napster era, to think it can forever keep people from accessing the live content they want.
What it can do is use its superior resources to do better live broadcasting than anyone else, airing it on CNBC, MSNBC or whatever other channels its corporate protoplasm will have sucked up by then. And when someone starts pirating live foreign TV broadcasts and putting them online, NBC should make sure it has online live video so comprehensive and tricked out with bells and whistles that no one will want to go anywhere else.
Of course, the network will still need to sell ads in prime time, and the argument is that live coverage will undermine it. Listen, guys: The viewer staying up 'til 3 a.m. to catch jai alai on her desktop is not going to watch the same game on tape-delay anyway. At the very least you'll be able to make up some revenue on cable. And part of the reason these Olympics have been such a dud is that few people are excited about them. Going live might actually help prime time, by sending the signal that the Games are worth staying up for, altering one's routine for that something special is going on.
Besides, in four years, more viewers will be using digital video recorders to "timeshift," automatically downloading programs and watching them whenever they feel like it. As prime time becomes less and less relevant to these folks, NBC will need to be less slavish in its dedication to it.
2: Dry up. This may go down as the year that viewers finally turned against the sappy human-interest features that supposedly draw non-sports fans into the Games. The profiles perhaps reached their lugubrious peak when NBC covered South Africa's Terence Parkin, a deaf swimmer, in a report that reached new heights of high-school-newspaper-level writing. "What must it be like to swim before thousands of fans and never hear the cheers?" NBC asked. "He'd like to make some noise this week the kind that everyone can't help but hear." (Later, we heard he would "visually watch" a strobelight to start the race.)
Thank God for small favors; Parkin would at least never have to hear his treacly tribute. Sure it's unfortunate that "he has never heard his mother's voice" but it's also true of every other person who's been deaf for life, whereas this inane report acted as though NBC just discovered a shocking new affliction. Memo to NBC: There's already a forum for serving up the mawkish, poorly written and tastelessly directed stories of unfortunate people as entertainment. It's called "Dateline." And "Dateline" does not Olympic-sized ratings get.
3: Rain on your own parade. Scandal, on the other hand, has made for the most interesting news, and some of the best ratings, at this year's Olympics. NBC scored some of its highest numbers the nights after the news of drug scandals but the network itself embarrassingly downplayed the news in its own coverage, presumably to prevent bogeying America's Olympic high.
Was NBC asleep during the Monica Lewinsky affair? Have its executives never watched "Judge Judy"? Americans watch television to wallow in scandal, not avoid it. NBC should be all over pill-popping athletes yes, including our own guys and gals and if it does the job responsibly, viewers will reward it. The Athens games, shaping up to be a fiesta of poor planning and security risks, should supply plenty of dirt for an enterprising network sports operation, and NBC should be on top of it like white on feta cheese.
4: Show more badminton. Laugh all you want, but have you ever seen how fast two Olympic-level competitors can knock around a shuttlecock? Of course you haven't, because badminton, table tennis, race walking and for that matter almost any of the more obscure Olympic sports haven't made the prime-time lineup. Instead, NBC relies on the more familiar gymnastics, track and field, diving fine sports all, but focused on in the mistaken belief that, because average viewers recognize them, they'll be of greater general interest.
Problem is, recognizable though platform diving is, it still isn't football. And Olympic basketball, while it is basketball, is Olympic basketball, a suspenseless, unsettling metaphor for everything ugly about American world dominance, as our arrogant stars steamroll over tiny countries at as much risk as one of our air squadrons pounding a Third World nation from 35,000 feet up. No, NBC needs to embrace the weird, surprising, freaky side of this panoply of minor sport. Think of the Winter Olympics, in which American viewers have lately fallen in love with the luge, not because they've ever used or seen one, but because they move damn fast and, well, it's a kick to say "luge." Just imagine the fun you can have with "shuttlecock."
5: One last suggestion, not for NBC but its competitors: Don't wait until after the Olympics to debut your new fall shows. If NBC doesn't learn anything from this year's experience, then trust me people will watch them, gratefully.