There would be no Olympic Games without television. It's that simple. The sale of broadcast rights by the IOC to networks around the world represent by far the largest revenue stream available to the Olympic Movement. And the multi-billion dollar contracts negotiated with American broadcasters--most recently NBC--is far and away the most lucrative of those.
In America, the Olympics are not a sporting event, they are a television event. And that means the only people who matter are--not the athletes or even the core fans--but the great masses who have cursed live Olympic sports in America with the dependable, mediocrity-driven concept of "Prime Time," those sedentary, glassy-eyed hours between 8 p.m. and midnight.
I despise NBC's tape-delay, repackaged forumla, but I don't deny that it works for them. Our objectives are simply different: I want to watch live sports, NBC wants high ratings so they can sell ads. NBC has a lot more at stake than I do, so they're winning the argument. But NBC's contract runs out after the 2012 London Games, and apparently ESPN is getting serious about a bid that would try to satisfy both viewers like me as well as advertisers.
The New York Times, in an article that is worth a read for anyone as frustrated over this as I am, quotes ESPN's EVP for content, John Skipper: “I don’t think nonlive is sports fan-friendly.”
Me neither. But it's never been up to me--or to other die-hard Olympic fans. Unfortunately, we are a very tiny minority. And our fatal flaw? We're going to watch anyway.
NBC says that most of its critics are still watching the Winter Games despite complaints that NBC's live streaming is limited to curling and hockey; that marquee daytime events like skiing are taped for prime time; that NBC's focus is too nationalistic; and that NBC has sown confusion by televising hockey on four channels.
ESPN, thought to be the only serious contender in the bidding for rights to broadcast the 2014 Winter Olympics and 2016 Summer Olympics, is proposing and all-live format for the first time ever. And they seem to think it could be profitable.
ESPN officials say they believe that NBC's Olympic financial model, with so much ad revenue coming from prime time, is rapidly evolving. Ed Erhardt, the president of ESPN customer marketing and sales, said that by 2014, "It will be an online, on-demand world, and those of us in front of it believe the ad models will be there to monetize it."
Incidentally, I think the all-powerful IOC has more to gain from a rights deal like ESPN's that ensures the whole world is literally watching at the same time, live, much the way the World Cup keeps people up at all hours around the world every four years.
But does the IOC have the balls to risk messing with NBC's formula and granting rights to a cable network without any Olympic experience? I doubt it. The IOC is not known to have balls. In any case, I'm not waiting for the IOC or NBC to come asking for my opinion. After all, I'm an actual fan of the Olympics, and since I'll be watching either way, my opinion doesn't count. Only in America could the confluence of media and sports created such an ironic paradox...