You’re watching the summer Olympics in record numbers. But you’re also complaining in record numbers. Which is it, America? Are you enjoying NBC’s London Olympics coverage—or aren’t you?
NBC is glowing from its record-breaking Olympics ratings that even industry analysts say they didn’t expect. The network is averaging 35.8 million viewers, the best first weekend of any Summer Olympics in history. But we see your #NBCFail hashtags and your angry tweets, and all of it is making for a very interesting moment in cultural history.
Remember the Summer Games in Beijing? That was only four years ago. People groused about NBC’s self-imposed broadcast delays then too, but now the digital vitriol is almost palpable. Back then Twitter registered 300,000 tweets a day. Now? It’s 400 million. Already, the microblogging site of 140 million users has had 10 million tweets about the Summer Games, according to a spokesperson.
So when actress Martha Plimpton tweeted last night to her 88,602 followers—“As a result of this awful Olympics coverage, you literally can’t be breathing without hearing results hours ahead of broadcast”—it had the impact of the shot heard ‘round the world, as it was retweeted throughout the Twitterverse.
“This is a huge global stage that the Olympics are on and this is a benchmark of how far social media has come and how television can benefit from social media,” said Brad Adgate, a Horizon Media executive who has 30 years of experience in media research. “I think NBC hadn’t anticipated that when it made these agreements with Twitter and Facebook, inviting people back and forth to make comments that could appear on NBC or encouraging people to talk about the Olympics on Facebook or Twitter. There are pros and cons. You can’t control what people are going to say in social media but you can benefit from it.”
The barrage of spoilers that Plimpton was referring to it is just one of several issues Americans have articulated about NBC’s coverage. On Friday night, viewers were just as frustrated by interruptions of the opening ceremony to accommodate canned interviews with athletes as they were with the constant chatter of Matt Lauer, Meredith Vieira, and Bob Costas. Even Jon Stewart took NBC to task for opting to show a Ryan Seacrest interview with Michael Phelps over the ceremony’s six-minute tribute to the July 7 terrorism victims in London. On Monday the Today Show’s man-on-the-street interviews in London wound up an embarrassment when the reporter, the hosts, and the producers completely missed that the man they were speaking with was Evander Holyfield. During that night’s primetime broadcast, Missy Franklin’s surprising gold-medal win was ruined by a promo for the Today Show that announced an interview with the winner before viewers actually saw her racing to the finish in the pool. In a statement, NBC Sports apologized to viewers on Tuesday about the Franklin gaffe and assured that “we have a process in place and this will not happen again.”
Then there was the Guy Adams debacle, which highlighted the Twitter and NBC Olympics partnership and made everyone except Adams, a journalist, look pretty bad. Adams, who writes for The Independent, was unceremoniously kicked off Twitter on Monday after he criticized NBC’s coverage in a few tweets and posted the corporate email of NBC president of Olympics Gary Zenkel. As it turned out, Twitter alerted NBC’s social media staff of the tweet and then NBC filed a complaint, which Twitter used to suspend Adams’s account because he violated the site’s privacy policies.
Twitter soon unblocked his account, and NBC Sports was left explaining its part in a statement this way: “Our interest was in protecting our executive, not suspending the user from Twitter. We didn’t initially understand the repercussions of our complaint, but now that we do, we have rescinded it.”
Without a doubt, Plimpton is not alone. The biggest complaint registered during the first few days of competition is about NBC’s decision not to air the Games live despite the fact that the rest of the world does. NBC has paid $1.18 billion for the rights to the Games, and prefers to use its free airwaves in a way that requires most of the viewing public to tune in during primetime because that’s when advertisers get more for their bucks. For Americans who want to watch it live, there is a digital stream available on the network’s website, but you have to be a cable or satellite subscriber to access it. On Saturday, for example, 7 million people streamed the competition compared with 1.6 million on the first day of competition in Beijing, according to NBC Sports. But there has also been criticism about failures in the streaming service.
“You are hearing more complaints than usual because everybody now has a podium via social media to register those complaints,” Adgate said. “You have a bully pulpit to express thoughts and opinions and, depending on who you are, tens of thousands of people can hear your thoughts and you can hashtag #NBCFail. But social media can also drive people to the TV and that appears to be happening in record numbers. If you balance it out, I think it’s balancing in NBC’s favor. They say no news is good news, but I don’t think that’s the case with social media.”