NBC Just Says 'No' To Live Airing of Potential Michael Phelps Record

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August 14th, 2008

NBC is really screwing the pooch by deciding that even if Michael Phelps is in a position to win a record-breaking eighth gold medal in one Olympic Games, it is still going to air the race tape-delayed on the west coast anyway.

I want this to be a scathing piece, but I can't bring myself to it because I'm in a pretty good mood. Plus, while we have many occasions to poke fun at NBC since a large focus of our site is primetime broadcast viewing, I find difficulty in doing so for a couple of reasons. And so before bashing NBC yet again, I wanted to say some good stuff about it.

First, when I e-mailed the press contact at NBC for the Beijing Olympic ratings and requested that if there was an e-mail distribution for the ratings list to be added to it, even though he was in Beijing and probably had been up 48 hours straight at the time, he responded immediately saying sure. He didn't ask what kind of a dopey blog we were, he didn't make us jump through any hoops. He just said sure.

Secondly , when I had a request for specific information, he responded immediately saying that although he was in Beijing he was keeping EDT hours and needed to sleep but he'd get something to me in the morning. Rather than get something to me directly, they just included the information within the next day's press release (which I received immediately thanks to being on the mailing list). Everybody's happy.

Also Alan Wurtzel, who is the head of research at NBC and mastermind behind TAMi (the Total Audience Measurement Index). NBC is doing some really cool research here and not only that - they're publishing numbers. Sure, some of the numbers are so juicy that even FOX is devouring them (and citing TVbytheNumbers in the process, which is kinda cool) - not to demean NBC, but more, I think to chest thump in a "Ha! People say that broadcast TV is dead. Yeah? The King is dead, long live the king!" I'm sure NBC is thrilled about this as well and CBS, and ABC, too. NBC is sharing results. We love data. I think a lot of that is thanks to Mr. Wurtzel and it's a great outcome for everyone, not just NBC.

As for the Phelps thing. Yikes. I'm hard pressed after six days to slam NBC for running tape delays on the west coast. I'm results oriented and it's hard to argue with the results, and obviously I have been looking at the results for every night. But I take issue with these words from NBC Olympic spokesperson Brian Walker when explaining why the Phelps race wouldn't be aired live on the west coast:

"The situation will remain the same as it has for all of our prime-time broadcasts," Walker said. "The reason that we're showing this in the normal prime-time patterns on the West Coast is because this is when the majority of people are available to watch."

I think this rings true in general. But, the normal prime-time pattern for Saturday prime-time viewing of broadcast networks is that not many people watch. The last Saturday before the Olympics started (August 2) the four major broadcast networks averaged 14.07 million people. Tape delays or no, NBC will average likely more than double that just on NBC. We're not talking "normal" when it comes to the Olympics, especially when it comes to Friday night and Saturday night viewing which are always a barren wasteland these days for broadcast nets, but especially so in the summer.

The Phelps case is extremely special, and I believe NBC should show the race live nationwide assuming Phelps is in the position to break the record (and he has a ways to go, still). For one thing, that race is scheduled to occur right before 11pm on the east coast so it's just barely outside of the 8pm primetime window on the west coast. And it's a weekend, if people know the race is going to be on, live and have the opportunity to watch it and they want to watch it? They'll figure it out. And that will probably be the largest 15 minutes of viewing NBC has had in a good long while.

Eight gold medals in one games has never been done. It's a very special and unique accomplishment, they ought to let the nation share in the thrill of victory (and even the agony of defeat) together and I think it's an unbelievably short-sighted move by NBC to not acquiesce just for the Phelps race. I'm not suggesting they start showing the full primetime portion live on the west coast beginning at 5pm PDT. I'm saying at 7:58pm PDT, the race out to be on the air everywhere, coast-to-coast, so that it can be savored and shared, regardless of outcome, as it happens.

Phelps is now six for six with gold medals, needing only one more to be in position to break the record on Saturday. Given the unique nature of the event should it come to pass, anything but a live nationwide airing of that race is completely unfathomable, except apparently, to NBC.

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