Online Defeats TV!

At NBC's Olympics, the thrill of video vs. the agony of delay

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Opening Ceremony of the London Olympics

Opening Ceremony of the London Olympics

There are many great rivalries playing out at the London Olympics, one of them in NBC's coverage itself: between digital and old-school ways of consuming media. The network's online livestream (on the Web and mobile apps) lets you watch every event live for the first time ever but has technical hiccups. The TV broadcast gives you snazzy video but, following a practice that dates back to Roone Arledge, makes you wait to watch major events tape-delayed in prime time, on NBC's schedule.

It's a test case for two different visions of media: a rough but all-you-can-eat diet for free-range viewers or a professional, regimented program for couch potatoes. It's the upstart vs. the old veteran! The Intertubes vs. the Boob Tube! Which is doing London better? I give you Tuned In's Olympic video heptathlon:


TV begins with an unfair advantage: NBC showed the ceremony in all its weird, Tolkienesque glory only in prime time on tape delay. The TV audience is far more lucrative for advertisers, of course, but the network's stated reason for not livestreaming the show was that it needed "context." That context included Bob Costas saying Djibouti has "a name that makes you smile" and Meredith Vieira saying of World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, "If you haven't heard of him, we haven't either." NBC also cut a musical tribute to honor victims of London's 2005 terrorist bombing. Why? "Our programming is tailored for the U.S. television audience." There's the global Olympic spirit, NBC! Winner: TV (by default)


TV has it. Online, except for marquee events, has less or none. You'd think this would give the category to TV. Hardly! NBC's analysis is crammed with nervous chatter (one announcer said a gymnast's dismount "will be coming up at the end of the routine") and soft features. (The British drink beer! In pubs! That's what they call bars!) Online, gymnastics is nothing but the soft scrape of a hand on a pommel horse; badminton is all satisfying thwacks. Do we need a professional to explain the rules of field hockey? I know you knock the hell out of a ball with a stick, and that's good enough for me. Winner: online


No contest: on my iPad on July 30, I watched Ryan Lochte fail to medal in the day's most anticipated race while NBC's viewers watched ... water polo. To protest these tape delays, viewers created the hashtag #NBCfail on Twitter and a parody news account, @NBCDelayed ("BREAKING: Muhammad Ali lights flame at opening ceremonies in Atlanta"). But NBC took comfort in its record ratings. Indeed, the buzz from people who saw events before you probably boosts viewership. For TV, as with commercial airlines and your health insurer, the customer's convenience is not necessarily best for business. Winner: online


There's a reason no one mounts an iPhone on the living-room wall. While it was great to see that Lochte race as it happened, the trade-off--as thousands of fellow fans crowded the livestream--was a picture that looked as if I had been watching from the bottom of an Olympic-size pool. Winner: TV


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