It Isn't Live, it's NBC

For those of you whose feet land inside the overlapping circles of sports and Twitter, it's not news that NBC's time-shifted coverage of the Summer Olympics was under a constant assault from the moment the opening ceremony began (which was different for all of the U.S. depending on which time zone you lived in). The hashtag #NBCFail provided a narcotics grade stream of the bile.

I didn't mind that NBC time-shifted coverage of key events to primetime. Tens of millions of American viewers had to be at work when many of these events were occurring in London. NBC paid $1.2 billion for the rights to this Summer Olympics, and they weren't going to cover that with ad revenue from airing events at 1pm on a Wednesday. They're not a charity.

However, the lack of a live broadcast with commentary on some of NBC's alternate channels, like the NBC Sports Network, was disappointing. I tried using the NBC Olympics iPad app to stream things live, but the interface was confusing. Music and film festivals with dozens of concurrent shows have converged on a simple side by side bar chart schedule format (example) to help attendees plot out a plan of attack. I had a terrible time figuring out when events would be broadcast live on the NBC Olympics app, and I ended up missing several.

Despite what was likely a minimal audience for the live streams, NBC insisted on trying to squeeze every last cent out of the live streams by randomly injecting video ads. The problem with live streams is finding the right moments to insert video ads. Without someone manning it live, it's impossible to do without interrupting the action. At Hulu we only put a pre-roll ad on live streams, we passed on monetizing with video ads during the stream because we didn't want to interrupt a key moment. NBC had no such qualms, and it seemed like a video ad would cut in roughly every minute to minute and a half, regardless of what was happening. Combined with the fact that much of the live broadcast footage had no commentary, the live streams were often  unwatchable.

Bob Costas is known for his even-keeled eloquence (and for his Dorian Gray-like ability to defy visible aging, even in this HD-age). But this Olympics, every time an event ended and they cut to Costas for his wrap-up of the event we just saw, I fast-forwarded through his commentary. These athletic feats being aired many hours after the fact, I no longer needed him to put them into context. Hours of live discussion on the internet had already done the job. After a swimmer would win a race, NBC would quickly cut to an interview with the American winners poolside, much faster than would be possible if the event were being taped lived. The effect was of a jump cut, emphasizing just how outdated the coverage was.

On the last day of competition, despite coverage that was already tape-delayed several hours on the West coast, the NBC primetime coverage began with an hour long segment on WWII. Announcers pretended to broadcast the event live, even as the occasional verb tense slipups gave away the charade. To watch NBC's best coverage of an event, you had to stay up until midnight each night on the West coast, even though the coverage being aired was already itself tape delayed by half a day. It's bizarre that someone wanting to watch a sporting event live would be a second class citizen to those watching on tape delay, but that's the decision NBC made for arguably the biggest sporting event it will cover all year (notably, for events like Wimbledon, NBC does not bother tape delaying the broadcast).

I love Kottke, but I can't agree with him when he says about whether or not tape-delaying most of the Olympics is a problem: "it's not, get over it". In his post he cites a psych study that says spoiling movie and book plots improves enjoyment of those books and movies.

Without a doubt, you can know the route ahead and yet still enjoy the journey. Plenty of Hitchcock movies demonstrated that a mystery need not end with the reveal of the villain. A movie like Dial M For Murder reveals the villain and his plot from the start, and the enjoyment is in seeing how the detective deduces what you already know. Reading reviews of restaurants or movies can heighten anticipation for the experience, enhancing your enjoyment once you're in your seat.

But I'm still skeptical of the psych study. As a thought exercise: let's suppose I can tell you the exact outcome, play by play, of every sporting event that will occur for the rest of your life. Say I can tell you, before you walk in the movie theater, the exact plot of the movie (even twist-driven movies like Sixth Sense). Do I think you'd still enjoy watching them? Sure. But do I think you'd enjoy them more if you didn't know the outcome beforehand? Without a doubt.

So despite the usual impressive array of camera angles, the biggest sporting event on the globe was reduced by NBC's coverage to something that felt smaller and flatter than it should be. While much of the world's communication has shifted to asynchronous channels (texting, blogging, FB status updates, Twitter, email, watching DVDs on your sofa), some things still are most magical when the world locks onto one clock. In this time-shifted age, sports is one of the last bastions of activity able to seize all the eyes of the world as it unfolds live, in real-time.

It could have been magical. And it was. But not now. About 8 hours ago.