Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 11, 2016

NBC’s Mistake Of Olympic Proportions

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life will be traveling on Sunday evening. That day’s post may be delayed.

Have the Olympic Games on television finally jumped the shark? While the Rio Games are less than halfway into the seventeen day schedule, there have already been plenty of reasons for viewers in this country to tune into NBC’s extraordinarily extensive coverage. Certainly the network was expecting viewers to flock to their flat screens, with officials predicting in advance that the prime time audience would top that of the London Games in 2012. But despite the variety of compelling American storylines during the first week, those predictions now appear to by little more than hype. Viewership for last Friday’s opening ceremonies was off by more than a third from London’s festivities. That was followed by an audience nearly thirty percent smaller than last time for the first day of actual competition. While things have improved slightly for the peacock network since, the average audience so far is off roughly twenty percent from 2012, with the prized age 18 to 34 demographic declining even more steeply.

One can’t blame the time difference. Of course it’s impossible to schedule all events in the evening, so some amount of taping is inevitable, with viewers either knowing the results before they watch or having to go to considerable lengths to avoid learning who won. But Rio is only one hour ahead of the U.S. east coast, so there are none of the problems of many or even most events being shown on extended tape delay as was the case for the 2000 Games in Sydney or 2008 in Beijing.

What many Americans haven’t seen is already an extensive list of results that would be a sure source of national pride. The first gold medal of the Games was won by 19-year old Ginny Thrasher in the air rifle competition. The Virginia native not only became the youngest woman to win the first gold at any Olympics, she set a scoring record for her event in doing so.

Thrasher’s gold was quickly followed by more familiar American names setting records and winning medals. Michael Phelps, competing in his fifth Olympiad at the ancient age of 31, added to his stockpile of medals with an individual gold in the 200 meter butterfly and two team golds in relay events. Katie Ledecky led the American women swimmers, capturing both the 200 and 400 meter freestyle as well as a gold and a silver in relay events. Ledecky set a new world record in the 400, finishing nearly five seconds ahead of the silver medalist.

That was the type of margin in the women’s team gymnastics competition. In a sport in which matches are often determined by tenths or even hundredths of a point, the American women claimed gold by a margin of more than eight points over runner-up Russia. And 43-year old Kristin Armstrong won the women’s cycling time trial for the third consecutive time. Armstrong is both the first person to win the same cycling event three times in a row and the oldest woman to claim a cycling gold medal.

The decline in television viewership is no reflection on the accomplishments of these athletes, or the others that will follow over the next ten days, nor is it a slight against the achievements and sometimes powerful back stories of Olympians from other countries. What Thrasher and Phelps, Ledecky and Armstrong, Simone Biles, Aly Raisman and all the rest are doing is real, but on network television (and on NBC’s cable outlets and streaming feeds as well) they are doing it in a fantasy land.

The Olympics are increasingly being presented not as an athletic competition but as an extended reality show, and one packed with commercials at that. Have some of the competitors overcome hardships of one kind or another to make their national team? Of course. But not every athlete has a gripping life story to tell; though one wouldn’t know that from the network’s efforts to make it seem otherwise. John Miller, NBC’s chief marketing officer for the Olympics, admitted to this when he said “The people who watch the Olympics are not particularly sports fans. More women watch the Games than men, and for the women, they’re less interested in the result and more interested in the journey. It’s sort of like the ultimate reality show and mini-series wrapped into one.”

An entire column could be devoted to the patronizing sexism of Miller’s comments. But without even going there, the reality is that the Olympics, like all sporting events above the grade school level where participation ribbons are awarded, really are about the results. As Jim McKay so famously intoned at the beginning of every week’s edition of ABC’s Wide World of Sports, it’s about “the thrill of victory…and the agony of defeat…the human drama of athletic competition.” Between the back stories and the commercials, and after the mindless prattle of some of NBC’s commentators, the coverage occasionally gets around to actually showing some of that human drama. It’s no wonder many viewers are tired of having to chew their way through so much cotton candy to finally get to the meaty main course.

The Olympic Games have become bloated and absurdly expensive. That this Olympiad is being held in a country that can ill afford the enormous costs of hosting the Games borders on tragedy. But as excessive as the Games are, NBC’s coverage is even more so. Both the International Olympic Committee and NBC would benefit from the old truth. Sometimes, less is more.


  1. You make some good points about chewing through cotton candy to get to the main course. We have been watching “Bloodline” on Netflix—now there’s a story.

    • Thanks Allan, I always appreciate your support. I can’t speak to Bloodline as I may be the only person in the country without a Netflix subscription. However from what I can find online it does look entertaining; though perhaps not the kind of family story that NBC would want to feature as part of its Olympics coverage!

      Thanks again,

      • There is a definite recurring theme, just like in Rio. Maybe if The Brady Bunch met up with City of God…

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