Will NBC's Olympics coverage change the way we watch the games?
In 1932, David Sarnoff, then the president of RCA, wrote an article titled “Where Television Stands Today” for the April issue of Modern Mechanics and Inventions. The founder of the NBC television network predicted that a new world of cultural and educational opportunities would be opened to the home. And he took the opportunity to describe the potential of this new medium:
“But even more appealing to the individual is the hope that television may, at least in a measure, enable man to keep pace with his thoughts. The human being has been created with a mind that can encompass the whole world within the fraction of a second. Yet his physical senses lag woefully behind. With his feet he can walk only a limited distance. With his hands he can touch only what is within reach. His eyes can see at a limited range and his ears are useful at a short distance only.
“When television has fulfilled its ultimate destiny, a man's sense of physical limitation will be swept away, and his boundaries of sight and hearing will be the limits of the earth itself.”
While Sarnoff was correct in his assertion that television would bring the world into our living rooms, the medium he helped to create did little to deliver on the promise that TV would sweep away man's boundaries of sight and hearing. TV has delivered a highly filtered view of the world — through the eyes of television production teams who attempt to capture an event or story and present it in a coherent manner that informs and/or entertains.
Our physical limitations have not been swept away. We still cannot direct the camera to see what we want, as we could do with our eyes if actually there. We have learned that the television medium is a powerful tool to convey the thoughts of those who control what we see. To date, it has not delivered on Sarnoff's promise to help us form our own thoughts.
One world, one dream
In the era of television broadcasting, the Olympics have always been one of the premiere events shown on the TV screen in the family room. During the two plus weeks of Summer Olympics coverage, the U.S. TV network with the rights to the games dominates the TV scene.
Perhaps this reality influenced the decision of the Olympics organizers in China to create the catchphrase “One World One Dream” for the 2008 Summer Games. But this phrase seems dated and inappropriate, given the realities of how NBC is providing coverage of these games.
During the Golden Age of TV broadcasting in the United States, families would gather around the electronic hearth and watch what amounted to an up close and personal news report of the games, with limited live event coverage. The gargantuan task of covering multiple venues — there are 28 sports in the 2008 edition of the games, with events spread out over 17 days — creates literally thousands of hours of content. Much like the shooting ratios for a documentary, this mountain of content was once distilled into about 200 hours of broadcasts. As a much younger viewer, this approach certainly provided a one-world view of the games.
As a middle-aged TV professional, I had the opportunity to help put together the broadcast facilities for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, while working for the Grass Valley Group. The International Broadcast Operations Center of any Olympic games is anything but a one-world operation. In reality, there are dozens of countries creating their own worldly view of the games, focused on the athletes from their nation and their performances.
For decades, TV coverage of the Olympics has focused on filtering through this massive quantity of content to give the folks back home a peek at what is going on. During the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, I had the opportunity to attend the Olympic archery events. The contrast between watching the distilled version of the games on TV and attending a live event was stark. Unlike live coverage of most U.S. college and professional sporting events, where TV coverage is often better than being there, the traditional edited down TV version of the Olympics is far less satisfying and engaging. For the few sports that earned live coverage, the experience could be exciting. For the rest, newspaper reports were often more timely.
But this is a new millennium, and digital distribution technologies are changing the traditional face of the television medium. This is the first Olympics where the potential exists to view almost all of the events in a manner that approaches being there.
The Olympics on demand
General Sarnoff would be proud and amazed to see how far the medium of television has progressed, although he might not recognize some of the new forms it has taken — the 500 channel universe of multichannel subscription TV (cable and DBS) and the demand-based world of video delivered via the Internet.
In what some are calling the most ambitious single media project in history, Sarnoff's NBC network is flooding the airwaves and cyberspace with a whopping 3600 hours of coverage from Aug. 8 to 24. The vast majority of these hours of Olympics coverage are being delivered via live streaming video on NBCOlympics.com. Of the total hours of event coverage, 1400 hours are airing on NBC and sister stations CNBC, Oxygen, MSNBC, USA and Telemundo (in Spanish), plus high-definition coverage on USA HD and Universal HD cable channels.
There will be more hours of coverage in Beijing than the combined total of every previous Summer Olympics televised in the United States. Coverage of 28 sports and 302 events will be virtually 24/7. To deal with the inevitable overlapping conflicts, the 12- to 15-hour time difference between Beijing and most of the United States, and the desire to relive and/or share the experience with others, much of the 2200 hours of live Internet streaming coverage will also be available later as VOD.
NBC has also entered into an agreement with DirecTV to make selected event coverage available after the live NBC coverage as VOD, and there will be Olympics coverage targeting video-enabled mobile phones as well.
Giving U.S. viewers the ability to virtually be there is only part of the story. The entire project is something akin to a huge research project or test lab for what TV may become in the next decade. CNN released a report on NBC's Olympic efforts. According to Alan Wurtzel, NBC's research chief, “Besides giving advertisers a clearer picture of how much consumers are paying attention to the games, NBC hopes its research provides a comprehensive picture of how people are supplementing TV viewership with tools such as video streaming, video on demand and mobile phones.” The CNN report provides additional details of the various measurement techniques that will be used to track what NBC calls a Total Audience Measurement Index (TAMI), which takes into account TV, online, video on demand and mobile phone usage. (For more, see “Web links” on page 16.)
A network's well-being
During the Golden Age of TV broadcasting in the United States, the network with the rights to the Olympics enjoyed a major promotional advantage over broadcast competitors. The timing of the Summer Olympics was perfectly suited for promotion of the network's fall prime-time schedule. That network usually did not make a profit on its Olympic coverage, but the ratings bump was worth the investment.
In due time, we will learn if the expanded coverage of the 2008 Olympics will turn into a rating bonanza for NBC. Earlier this year, NBC Universal took a big step toward undoing one of the television industry's oldest traditions by announcing that it would move to a year-round schedule of staggered program introductions. This move is in part an attempt to provide fresh content throughout the year to help slow the erosion of viewers to cable networks that offer fresh content on a more or less continuous basis. For NBC, there will be fewer new shows to promote during the Olympics.
What NBC may learn from this massive research project is that a new generation of viewers is seeking more from the world of digital media than the programming formulas that worked so well when there were only a handful of TV channels. Today, the broadcast networks are in competition with hundreds of channels of linear TV, VOD, DVDs, video games and the virtual world of the Internet. NBC may learn far more than its founder could possibly have imagined about the power of being there.
Craig Birkmaier is a technology consultant at Pcube Labs.
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The official Web site of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games; http://en.beijing2008.cn
NBC Olympics Web site; www.nbcolympics.com
NBC: Olympics a new-media ‘research lab;’ www.cnn.com/2008/TECH/07/07/nbcolympics.ap/index.html