Feeding on itself

… and we’re back.

If you live in the United States, you probably spent the past weeks listening to people complain about NBC’s coverage of the Olympics, and if you cared even a tiny little bit about all the hoolabaloo that was going on in London, you probably engaged in a healthy measure of complaining yourself. That’s fine, we won’t judge. But here’s some free advice: if you have a low opinion of NBC’s strategy for covering these games, you should probably find a way to come to terms with it, because it may become a standard in coverage of international sporting events. Why? Because from NBC’s perspective, it was unbelievably successful – ratings went through the roof, and the coverage is now being called “most watched TV event in US history” after the Nielsen ratings were released.

And what have we learned?

First we need to pause and appreciate the irony of a coverage that drew universal outrage becoming the most watched event in US history. It’s the Yogi Berra theory of audience engagement: “nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded”.

Never mind the loud clamor in internet circles that mass media is dying – the power of broadcast to create a shared sense of place is alive and well. For a couple of weeks, every night, NBC picked a few sports out of the hundreds available in London and used them to construct a narrative that brought people to the front of their TV sets. Prime time coverage focused on tape-delayed showings of hand-picked sports: swimming, diving, track & field, gymnastics and beach volleyball. This selection managed to bring in an audience unlike any other in sports – 54.3% female. This is so uncharacteristic that ESPN mostly didn’t counterprogram or react in any way to the Olympics – it was business as usual. While NBC was tape-delaying reality, the American living room was gobbling it up. No word has been more misused and abused in the past few years than “curate”, but there’s no better term to describe what NBC did – instead of aiming a firehose of meaningless sports events at the public, it turned the Olympics into Masterpiece Theater.

Also, the ladies doth protest too much, methinks. The magic of the internet guaranteed that aforementioned firehose was still there, for those who cared enough. If you were really interested on some exotic event that was not showing on the five or more channels NBC dedicated to Olympics coverage, it was probably available online in some fashion. This correspondent watched his compatriot Sarah Menezes nab the gold medal in Judo for the under 48kg category. That medal event probably attracted the interest of about 20 people in the continental United States. Still, it was readily available online.

Right now, in a conference room somewhere in NBC-land, producers are already gathered, laying out the plans for the coverage of the next international event. Do you think the lessons learned in London will apply? If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.