Tuesday, February 25, 2014

How Will NBC Cover the 2018 Winter Olympics?

The 2014 Winter Olympics may be viewed as the moment in time that NBC finally figured out that the world has changed.   

In 2012, the Summer Olympics were covered so poorly that it spawned a Twitter movement, #NBCFail, and revealed once and for all that then-producer Dick Ebserol was still living in 1986. The tape delayed coverage of nearly everything ruined what should have been one of the more exciting Games in recent memory.

sochi ice dancing
Instead, NBC focused all its efforts on primetime, forcing people to watch streams of everything – despite those online streams never seeming to work. The nadir came when Usain Bolt won the 100m in the event's showcase event on a Sunday night in London, which was approximately 4:50 p.m. in New York City. Did NBC show this live on television?

#NBCFail, so of course not.

With the dinosaur Ebserol now banished back to the 1980's, NBC finally entered the future in 2014. No, they didn't air everything live and I really wish they had done so for the skiing. But they did for the marquee event as every single figure skating was shown live on NBCSN. This had never happened before and NBC deserves credit for thinking of the viewer.

Still the time difference between Sochi and the United States made it impossible to air anything live in primetime and ratings were good, yet obviously down from the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. 

Overall, NBC covered the games well, the ratings were more than decent and I'd have to consider them a win for the network. Heck, they even got Jimmy Fallon off to a good start.

Yet people are already looking ahead to a potential disaster for NBC as the next Winter Olympics in 2018 are in Pyeongchang, South Korea. That is 14 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, which means that 8 pm at the Games will be 6 am in New York City. And 3 pm will be 1 am.

Many are already predicting doom, but could the time difference be a good thing? Remember, NBC crushed the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing because they got the swimming events to start at 10 am. local time, which was right in primetime on the East Coast – meaning every Michael Phelps Gold Medal-winning swim was shown live. They sacrificed the track and field, Usain Bolt's 100m win was shown on NBC some 16 hours after it happened, but the record ratings were worth it.

With all that in mind – how will NBC cover the 2018 Winter Olympics?

Does Primetime Look Back or Ahead?
The 14-hour difference could be a really, really good thing or a really, really bad thing. Simple math shows that 8 pm on the East Coast is 10 am where the Games will take place. So does NBC's primetime show look ahead to the day of events, focusing on events that could take place in the morning or early afternoon, especially the alpine, snowboard and sledding events?

Can NBC, as they did in Beijing, make special arrangements for events that will have American stars. As an example looking at this year's event, the snowboard events were heavy on American superstars –could NBC pull strings to make sure those events take place during U.S.-friendly times?

Now for some events, like figure skating, that will be impossible and they will be shown on an extreme tape delay. But if NBC airs those events live on NBCSN in the wee hours of the morning – the figure skating would take place between 4-8 am – would it be that big of a deal?

What I think will happen is that NBC uses the first two hours or so of primetime catching up on the previous day's events (the look back) and then closes primetime with live coverage (the look ahead) of specific sports that Americans have favorites in, like snowboard, certain alpine events and sledding events. You might even be able to add speed skating to that list if the U.S. redemption story gets legs four years from now.

terry tara and johnny weir
Johnny Weir, Tara Lipinski & Terry Gannon
I have made my feelings about Johnny Weir and his potential known. But the entire announcing crew for the NBCSN figure skating coverage was top-notch, and between 100 to 5,000 times better than the primetime NBC coverage. They have to be the primetime figure skating announcing crew in 2018. There's no excuse to do otherwise.

If it were up to me, I'd still do the live coverage on NBCSN and then replay only the top performances in primetime as the trio announced it live. I know NBC will want to do the puff pieces -- so use Scott Hamilton as a studio commentator/host that can pitch to and from the puff pieces while letting Terrance, Johnny and Tara do their thing.

Simply put, NBC cannot have its figure skating A-team only calling the live action on NBCSN.

The Olympic Primetime Host will be Bob Costas
The passion of Bob Costas' redeye had many people thinking about the future and what NBC would do if he wasn't hosting. As much as Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira excel on morning shows, they are not in the same league as Costas when it comes to hosting duties. You either have that talent in spades or you don't. Lauer and Vieira were good, Costas is great.

So Costas will be in that chair for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio and the 2018 games in Korea. In fact, NBC seems to only have one up-and-coming hosting star in Liam McHugh, who anchors the NHL and Notre Dame coverage, and did a really good job in Sochi. But it would take an enormous leap for him to jump up to the big-time host chair.

The only other possibility, if Costas somehow leaves the network entirely, would be Dan Patrick, who did a lot of the weekend and NBCSN coverage. Or NBC could hire someone from another network – but who would be better than Costas?

NHL Players Will Play In The Olympics
The injury to John Tavares has again opened up the debate of why NHL players take part in the Olympics for no money. There will be back and forth for the next four years but the NHL will back, if maybe Tavares won't be.

There are two significant reasons why. First, the players want to play. While NBA players have at times looked at the Olympics as an obligation, many NHL players have grown up looking at the tournament as the highest level to achieve in the sport with a Gold Medal rivaling, if not quite surpassing, the Stanley Cup. You think LeBron sees his Gold Medal like that? It also helps that the sport of hockey has so many strong countries – and strong World Championship tournaments in non-Olympic years – that it truly means something.

Secondly, and most importantly, NBC will still have the NHL rights. While there has been no correlation from Olympic ratings to NHL ratings, it certainly can't hurt to raise the level of notoriety for players. The hockey tournament is one of the highest-rated portions of the Olympics and has really boosted NBCSN's numbers and awareness. NBC will make sure that happens in 2018, though I would safely assume the NHL and its players will finally make something off of the deal.

Late Night Hockey?
The Olympic hockey games usually start around noon local time – which is 10 p.m. on the East Coast. That would eat into the NBC primetime, but what if the schedule was adjusted so, say, the U.S. hockey team game had a puck drop of 2 pm local time, or midnight in New York?

The Olympics do a good job of scheduling to a home country's time zone, as neither Canada or the U.S. hockey teams played at noon local time in 2014, which would have been 3 am on the East Coast.

But a midnight ET, 9pm PT puck drop on NBCSN would figure to do bang-up ratings, right? Especially considering that Olympic hockey has no commercials and end in about two hours, that is all primetime for the West Coast and would mean staying up to 2 am on the East Coast – that's reasonable, right?

And if the gold medal game is at noon local, as it was for the 2010 Vancouver games, that would mean a live 10 p.m. start on NBC proper. You get the U.S. in the game and watch the ratings soar.

What Happens to Figure Skating?
As I mentioned above, the money event of every Winter Olympics is going to have a very, very tough sell in 2018. As with the 2008 track and field events in Beijing, NBC will likely have to sit on the figure skating for 12-14 hours before airing them in primetime. While the live action on NBCSN had very little impact on ratings in 2014, it could be a huge problem in 2018 since that will happen right at the same time, approximately, as the Today Show.

What would you rather watch, if you're interested in the Olympics, before going to work? Live figure skating performances or Al Roker trying to luge?

More Curling or Live Curling or Both?
I don't get the love for curling but, like in Vancouver, the sport did excellent ratings for CNBC as it drew multiple millions for coverage after the final bell, despite being tape delayed by hours.

curling 2018 olympicsWhat does NBC do with this seemingly emerging sport? They aired very little live curling, instead opting to air it on CNBC at 5 p.m. While that worked out well in Sochi, for 2018, that would mean airing curling well after it occurred.

In my opinion, I think the time difference allows NBC to air more sports live in the overnight – who is watching CNBC at 3am on a Wednesday anyway? I think we will see a lot more curling and a lot more live curling as NBC fills the overnight hours with endless curling matches, or whatever they're called.

There appears to be an audience for curling once every four years -- let them watch it all night for hours if they want.

More Cross-Country and Biathlon, Please
If it weren't for snow days, I may not have been able to watch any cross-country skiing or fascinating biathlon – there is just something riveting about skiing for miles, stopping to shoot at a target, and then skiing for a few more miles.

But more than that, the sport can be really, really exciting. Most people hear cross-country skiing and instinctively yawn or groan. But a close race is edge of your seat stuff, which gets buried every Olympics because the U.S. is never any good at it.

If I'm running the NBC operation for the next Olympics, I go all in on biathlon and cross-country. Air that stuff live!

Innovation: What Can't We Think of Yet?
Here is what I think NBC should do because of the time difference – they need to air every important event live as it happens. For many of the events, this will mean airing at 2-5 am on the East Coast. Do it. What do you have to lose? Only a fraction of your primetime audience will watch it and you'll shut up all the people on social media that complain about the tape delay.

It is a relative no-lose for NBC since they will have next to no worries about live coverage eating into primetime coverage due to the time difference. And since you could potentially have some live events in primetime, that should offset any losses from airing, say, the bobsled at 3 am and then again at 8 pm.

When it comes to technology, I think the next step for live streaming is for it to be available through your cable box. NBC does this now with the Premier League, where every game is aired live on the NBC Sports Live Extra app as well as through my on-demand menu, though it's hard to find.

In 2018, I expect every event will be available to you live through your cable box. I would imagine events that are not aired live on NBCSN, CNBC, MSNBC or USA will be available like those Premier League games through your on-demand menu or dedicated channels, similar to the  1992 Triplecast (way, way ahead of its time, eh?) or the special soccer/basketball channels NBC set up for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

I guess it shouldn't be an innovation to show everything on your television live, but this is the network of #NBCFail and Dick Ebersol -- they have quite a hole to dig out of. But in 2014, they started to. By 2018, they'll finally join the 21st century after about two decades.

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