This is admittedly a completely extreme and unnecessary stretch to compare one thing to another, but I need something British, so here goes: England's Monty Python once sang that "every sperm is sacred." In a way, that's also true for Olympic broadcasting.
Every Olympics on TV is sacred. It's the only sports property that draws comparable numbers to football in this country, so it needs to be treated with care. Because technology has changed in some significant way every time the Games are held, they are also unique. Therefore, every Olympic Games broadcast is sacred. Phew.
If you look at this from a diehard sports fan's standpoint, you're going to say that this was all horrid. We knew about everything before we watched it in primetime, NBC made no effort to try and get with the times, and the streaming quality was often terrible.
However, if you went beyond that audience -- and most of the people who watch the Olympics do -- you didn't care, you were just constantly enthralled by the action. Viewers got fatigued a bit on the Olympics late in the second week (something that happens often) but they rarely fell below an audience that, say, the highest-rated game of the NBA Finals would draw. That's a lot of people tuning in to a television event in 2012. NBC's broadcast strategy was so good, they got 18.5 million people to watch a Matthew Perry sitcom just because it aired after the Olympics. That, my friends, is remarkable.
So what tangible criticisms can you levy at NBC beyond the angry Twitter pitchfork holders?
Let's talk about Ryan Seacrest first, since he seemed to draw the most ire outside of tape delays. It isn't wrong for NBC to use him, since they're paying him a ton of money and they can't get their worth out of him just reporting what Lindsay Lohan drank on corporate sibling flagship E! News every night. A lot of people use Seacrest -- a completely competent broadcaster and host -- to get their frustrations out about the idiocy of reality television. Those criticisms missed the point.
The fact is that Seacrest was rarely used well. Any time a network thinks of having somebody check out what's going on with social media, they should take a breath, wait five seconds and then choose to not do that. The sports TV trend of reading tweets on air needs to stop. You can have a bottom line displaying social media buzz, but don't talk about it, and especially not with Seacrest. A suggestion for next time around? Let him either do travelogue pieces and interviews, or let him host NBC's dull late night show, which could use a little bit of youth. Mary Carillo's not exactly a name the American Idol audience is passionate about, or knows.
Another idea? Let him interview any athlete under the age of 30, which keeps Bob Costas from making some reference to a pop culture or sports icon from decades ago that the Gabby Douglases and McKayla Maroneys and Missy Franklins of the future will have never heard of.
Costas is one of the best at what he does and, for a generation, the only Olympic host they know. He is the best at transitioning from sport to sport, story to story, but his 60 years of age (seriously, Bob Costas is 60!) showed when interviewing the teenage U.S. gymnastics team, and even some older than that. Let Seacrest bring some perspective to our younger Olympians, and have Costas handle the historical stuff.
Elsewhere, Al Michaels and Dan Patrick made for a solid tag team in daytime, handling more hours than Jim Lampley (the daytime host of many past Summer Olympics) had ever handled, and appearing to have fun doing it. The fact that Michaels and Patrick would often switch off and on, and go see Olympic events during their off hours, gave them a unique, roving reporters-style that hadn't really been done before. I quite liked what they did, though I don't know if there'll be enough events to cover in Sochi to have them do this again.
The talent is something I can come up with little to complain about in general. Props go to Liam McHugh and Michelle Beadle (who started work at 4 a.m. ET every morning) for making an entertaining show on NBC Sports Network. McHugh's work, in particular, on the women's gold medal soccer match was terrific, even working Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers into the mix and making it seem like it made sense. CNBC's boxing studio show was solid, with Fred Roggin inviting in B.J. Flores and Laila Ali to provide solid commentary. The team sports (basketball, soccer, water polo, handball, field hockey) were all well-covered and stayed away from tape delays for the most part.
The streaming issue is something that will get better as technology improves, but the fact is that NBC wasn't ready for this type of action. You were seeing audiences of millions tuning into various events, and that likely caused problems at keeping the world feed up. That is inexcusable, but is also something that can't necessarily get worse as technology develops.
The fact is that on television, NBC continuously steps their game up at the Olympics. They give people a product they want to watch, pretty much whenever they want it. Want to see Olympic action at 4 a.m. ET? It's there. How about at 2 p.m. ET? There. 9:30 p.m. ET? There. Olympic action was live for every hour of every day, save for 1:30 a.m. ET to 4:00 a.m. ET. Even then, you could catch a repeat of NBC's primetime show. It's not as if the Olympics, save basketball, are sports you have a jonesin' for at any other point during the next four years. They put it on, and you watched. Be thankful that the Olympics aren't on ESPN, or all your complaints would be added to Chris Berman, Stuart Scott, and probably Skip Bayless talking over it all.
The question becomes this: what can NBC take away from their most successful (ratings-wise), yet perhaps most maligned (in social media) broadcast of the Olympics to 2016 in Rio? Or even 18 months from now in Sochi?
When you look at the factors I mentioned leading up to that question, the answer is: not much. This is especially true when it comes to comparing a Winter Olympics to the Summer Olympics. There are far fewer events in the Winter Games, and even fewer than that will get primetime coverage. NBC will likely parcel out a channel for hockey (NBC Sports Network), a channel for the inexplicably beloved-for-two-weeks curling (CNBC), put the marquee events on NBC primetime (figure skating, speed skating, skiing) and everything else on some other cable network.
The one comparable from London to Sochi will be tape delay, and things may get even worse. There is a nine-hour delay from Sochi to the Eastern time zone in the United States. That guarantees that, unless Olympic officials allow events to air in the very wee hours of the morning (as in Beijing), you will see nothing live in primetime yet again at the Olympics in 2014. Will NBC air some primetime events live on cable, then re-air in primetime? Will streaming become even more pervasive? Or will they just keep doing what works? I would hope that we see the first of those options, but am eternally pessimistic it'll be the last.
The more compelling quagmire is 2016 in Rio, which is only one hour ahead of the eastern time zone. Then it becomes an issue of fitting all the marquee events in a small window, and finding a way to show as much live as you can. It's a more difficult trick than you might think: what if the U.S. gymnastics team performs at the same time as Missy Franklin's attempt at a gold medal? What if Usain Bolt is running while the women's volleyball gold medal match is in the same slot?
So many questions, many of them unique to those games. That's why every Olympic broadcast is sacred. The real accomplishment is making every Olympic broadcast good.