Evaluating NBC's Olympic coverage

There's been a lot of anger directed at NBC in the past week for their coverage of the Winter Olympics. Yesterday, I was in my car, and within 5 minutes of each other, I heard two sports talk radio hosts on different stations bashing NBC's decision to put the USA-Canada hockey game on MSNBC.

One of those hosts was on the ESPN Radio national broadcast. He couldn't believe that NBC would move such an important to hockey game to cable. Cable! How dare they!

Of course, it's somewhat ironic that an ESPN host would be criticizing a decision to cover an important sporting event on cable. After all, ESPN has made a killing in recent years by buying the rights to major sports events and airing them on cable. Everything from the Monday Night Football to the BCS to the NBA Conference Finals can be found on ESPN. So the fact that the radio hosts I heard on 570-AM and 710-AM were both outraged that MSNBC (a station in about as many homes as ESPN) would cover a preliminary round hockey game was perplexing. NBC also aired some USA basketball games in Beijing on cable, and there was no hue and cry for that. And it wouldn't surprise me if those basketball games earned a better rating.

Regardless, the radio hosts failed to understand the reasoning behind NBC's decision. The USA-Canada game started just before 8 PM Eastern Time, 5 PM Pacific. NBC has a scheduled Prime Time broadcast every night at that time on the East Coast, and then it re-airs 3 hours later on the West Coast. By showing the game on a widely-available cable station, the network could actually air it live for hockey fans, without commercial interruption. It made for a much more exciting broadcast than a typical game. And I'm surprised hockey fans weren't more grateful the game was on MSNBC instead of, say, Versus, which broadcasts a few games of the Stanley Cup Finals.

Still, every day I'm hearing complaints from people here in Los Angeles about NBC's tape-delayed coverage for Olympic events that take place in our time zone. I'm not going to lie, it frustrates me too. It's especially annoying to get an LA Times e-mail news alert about an American winning a medal, only to know I can't watch it for three hours.

But the reality is that NBC has a different philosophy when it comes to Olympic coverage, and it's hard to blame them based on the numbers. NBC's goal is to get the biggest prime time rating that it can each night. And it is succeeding, as these are the most watched non-US Olympics since Lillehammer in 1994. If I was an executive at NBC, I might make the same decision.

Part of the problem is the way television ratings are determined, and the Neilsen system that networks are beholden to. There are dozens of creative solutions that exist between online and digital cable, but TV networks still are pressured to put up the single biggest number each night to generate the largest ad buys possible.

Personally, I'd at least be curious if NBC could experiment with some kind of a dedicated digital cable station that showed the East Coast feed to the West Coast. Or at the very least, I wonder if it's possible to start the tape-delay at 7 PM out here, instead of 8 PM. Many viewers complained about the men's figure skating final going past midnight on tape delay, and I doubt NBC really wants young kids being prevented from watching major events because they air past their bedtime. Maybe there would be less complaining, and they could still pull in a great prime time rating.

In the meantime, I want to give a little plug to the good people over at SportsFanLive, who are doing a live Olympic blog from The Parlor in Santa Monica. One of their bloggers is UCLA student McKenzy Golding, who could have qualified for the Olympics in skiing, but chose to step away from the sport after her mother became ill.

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