Gorging myself on NBC’s moveable feast of Olympic viewing

  NBC's Olympic page on a computer, with Gold Zone displayed.

NBC's Olympic page on a computer, with Gold Zone displayed.

I always thought the only disadvantage of being at an Olympics as a journalist was being able to see just the event I was covering and missing out on action that was more exciting.

Now that I am watching at home for the first time since the 1984 Summer Games, having spent just the opening eight days in Rio, I find myself so overwhelmed by choices provided by NBC and its partners that my brain is ready to explode – with joy.

I understand 1984 might as well have be the Middle Ages of communications.  A single over-the-air TV network provided all broadcast coverage to U.S. viewers, and the only other live information came from radio.

Even that knowledge did not prepare me for the shock of the new until I experienced it on three televisions, two computers placed side-by-side, a tablet and a mobile phone.

(It’s a good thing my televisions are in three different rooms, or I wouldn’t be getting any exercise.)

Thursday at 9 a.m. CDT, I was bouncing among two browser tabs on my laptop showing the decathlon and the women’s high jump qualifying; women’s platform diving semis on my desktop; NBC and NBCSN coverage (which also was track and field and was all over the women’s relay baton snafu); USA Network coverage of the men’s triathlon; Golf Channel coverage of the women’s Olympic tournament; and official live results on my mobile phone, for which I have access as a credentialed media member.

I also had a computer tab open to NBC’s Gold Zone, which divides the screen into quadrants with a different event on each of the four and commentary on what is deemed the most interesting at any moment.  At 3:30 Thursday afternoon, I was seeing Helen Maroulis of the USA win wrestling gold, a women’s platform diving medal ceremony, a women’s taekwondo semi and the Belgium-Argentina gold-medal match in field hockey, which the producers briefly deemed worthy of taking the full screen.

Oh, yes, and checking email on a tablet.

Since the live results arrive before the computer streams of either what also is available on TV or the unadorned feeds of an event, it takes some self-control to avoid foreknowledge of what the broadcasts / webcasts will show.

And to think that the telecast of the 1980 Miracle on Ice hockey game was shown a couple hours delayed in the United States.

Of course, NBC Universal still has been showing some events (notably women’s gymnastics) on a delayed basis for the prime-time show of its flagship, NBC.  This clearly remains irritating to many viewers, especially those on the West Coast.

And it has been amusing every morning to hear Today Show hosts give promos for prime time that referred to “competing tonight” about events taking place in the afternoon.  And, man, there are a lot of commercials on the prime time show.

At the risk of sounding like an apologist for NBC (ask their staff apologists if they thought of me that way after I broke the story of NBC influence getting 2018 Olympic figure skating switched to South Korean morning starts to be in U.S. prime time, which won’t make Asian viewers happy), let me make the following points:

*NBC paid $1.26 billion (as part of a multi-Olympics package) for U.S. rights to the 2016 Olympics.  It also is spending a big chunk of change on production – both people and material. The way it offsets those costs (and sometimes makes a profit) is from ad sales.  It is not a non-profit.

*In return, U.S. audiences are getting approximately 1,378,675,314 hours of coverage (actually 6,755) on over-the-air, cable and digital platforms.  For authenticated pay-TV subscribers, that has included being able to see a digital live stream of every event, no matter where you are (I have watched some on my phone while dinner was on the barbie.)

I understand that pay-TV is not cheap, and that many people have cut the cord.  I also realize that NBC’s Olympic traffic is going to digital platforms more than ever, with a majority of those viewers doing it on mobile devices.  As newspapers have found, monetizing that audience is not easy for TV companies, either, but they are providing the coverage.

*For most working people whose jobs do not call for watching the Olympics, the prime-time telecast (or digital stream of it) remains the main opportunity to watch.  So those who wanted to see gymnastics that took place earlier counted on it being shown in prime time (unless they recorded it, which also was possible immediately after each event).  That NBC packages the gymnastics is a good thing, since there is so much going on at the same time in team and all-around competitions it is dizzying to cut from one apparatus to another.

Do I love all the NBC commentators?  No.  Do I wish some were more impartial?  Yes.  But have you ever listened to Olympic coverage in other countries?  It is as jingoistic – or more.

Do I wish NBC prime time had shown more field event action in track and field, rather than looking in irregularly?  Yes, because I’m of the generation that thinks TV monitor first.  (That is spelled d-i-n-o-s-a-u-r.)  But if I had wanted to watch the entire long jump, I could have done it digitally.

The big problem is U.S. internet speeds still are so slow (ah, to be in South Korea), unless you have the means to fork over a king’s ransom for faster service.  For now, the consistent quality of the picture still is way better in the United States on a high-def TV.

This is the bottom line:  when I was writing in the U.S. Olympic Committee offices in Rio, there were four TV monitors showing different live TV host broadcaster streams.  With someone always watching one of them, we all would get “alerts” verbally (“Hey, here’s the fencing gold-medal match”) when the action became decisive.  It was sweet.

Since NBC’s digital coverage was geoblocked in Rio, the only way to see something not on those monitors was via the SlingPlayer hooked up to one of my home TVs.  (And I did that occasionally).

Once I got home, only the number of devices available and their relative location in my home has limited my ability to multi-watch.  I’m giving NBC in the United States props for that.  It has been even sweeter.