The London Olympics have been on for 10 days now, and the effects it has had on me personally have been manifold. Having lived in the East End of London for a number of years, I have regretted more than once not being in London for this occasion, experiencing the fun, the excitement, and the alleged travel chaos firsthand.
I followed the first half of the Olympics whilst being at work in Toronto, where naturally, most events were all over the screens on the trading floor during the day. From the entertaining (if a bit long) opening ceremony to Michael Phelps making history by (initially) winning just a silver medal, nothing went unshown. Expectedly, the Canadian broadcaster exhibited a certain patriotic bias by putting emphasis on sports with a strong Canadian showing, but not to the extent of passing by events you simply would expect to be shown. As such, a Canadian bronze medallist in swimming would feature a lot, but then again, it happened to be the first swimming medal in about 100 years, so that seemed fair enough.
Things changed though when I traveled to the US for the second half of the events. Suddenly, the main broadcaster, NBC, seemed to exhibit a rather strange selection of sports to show on live television. I started to become suspicious when Michael Phelps' last ever race, him being American and all, didn't seem to be showing on any of the various channels. Reverting to the BBC live ticker is good when you don't have a TV around, but clearly a live broadcast should beat that hands down, but it was simply nowhere to be found. This turned out, however, to be only the warning for the next day's big event: the 100m men's final.
Again, I gathered around the TV at the right time (around 3:45pm), and again it was a case of right time but definitely wrong place. The various channels were showing live show jumping, water polo and other sports. No disrespect to those athletes' achievements, but it is not quite the same as watching Usain Bolt running circles around his rivals.
Trying to get to the bottom of what I considered to be an epic failure in sports broadcasting, the reason seems to be a combination of
- NBC not wanting to pay enough to secure the rights to live broadcasting of the main events;
- Only a minority would care enough about wanting to see things as they happen; and
- The broadcaster thinking that showing such events at US prime time (roughly 9pm) would be perfectly acceptable.
I could accept reason (1.) if this was not one of the biggest sporting events in presumably one of the biggest TV markets but (2.) and (3.) are just mind-boggling. Apparently, in an age of Twitter, live-streaming, and instant accessibility of information around the globe, a major TV station believes that its viewers are happy with seeing major sporting events six hours after the fact, when the results can be found through every single news outlet within seconds.
Where is the fun in watching such competitions when you can't help knowing the results? Any website you open between 4pm and 9pm will say 'Usain Bolt strikes again', yet NBC thinks viewers will still be as excited as if it was live? Bizarrely enough, it is not that the Sunday afternoon slot is complete dead space, since American football is usually on around that time. Nevertheless, this didn't seem to convince NBC that broadcasting 9.63 seconds of finest and most riveting track-and-field would find an audience.
Unfortunately, I will not be back in Canada, where live broadcasting seems to be cherished much more, until after the end of the Olympics. Until then, I am stuck with something that rather uncomfortably reminds me of news-casting in East Germany in the 1980s, where the TV station selected what was right for the audience and when.
The slight difference is that they didn't have the BBC live ticker, which for now shall remain my favourite source of - patriotically biased - information, if not in HD, at least well on time. Beat that, National Broadcasting Corporation!