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NBC Makes Smart Move By Streaming Olympics

I’ve heard it ever since I joined the NBC family: Why can’t we watch the Olympics live? My answer I think was better than most. Because, unlike any sport out there, it has done fine on tape delay.

A detailed view of the prototype design of the new golden Olympic torch during its unveiling at St Pancras Station on June 8, 2011 in London, England. 8,000 torchbearers will carry the Olympic Flame around the UK during the 70-day relay, which starts at Land's End in Cornwall on May 19, 2012.
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A detailed view of the prototype design of the new golden Olympic torch during its unveiling at St Pancras Station on June 8, 2011 in London, England. 8,000 torchbearers will carry the Olympic Flame around the UK during the 70-day relay, which starts at Land's End in Cornwall on May 19, 2012.

We don’t watch most of these sports in the four-year period that they are off, so it makes it a delay—that would otherwise be unacceptable in a mainstream sport—more palatable.

The more important point is that if everything were live, NBC would not be able to pay the rights fees it does because it simply wouldn’t garner the same viewership and couldn’t charge the rates it does for advertising.

That’s why NBC could afford to pony up more for the future Olympic rights than ESPN could since ESPN promised they’d bring the games in live.

So when I heard that NBC was willing to live stream every event on NBCOlympics.com for the games this summer, I wondered what had changed. So I called up Alan Wurtzel, the president of research and media development for NBC.

The first important part that Wurtzel stressed was that the live feed, which comes from the world feed, would be nothing like what was seen later on. It’s not produced and there’s no context. An important thing to note: Once the event is done, it is not archived until after it has run on television.

“We don’t think it will have any deleterious impact on our prime time broadcasts,” Wurtzel said.

I understand how the hard core fans of a certain sport have to watch live, but most people won’t enjoy watching live. When I have gone to events at the Olympics, you can’t believe how long everything takes and how bad the athletes that are on the end of the line, that you never see, are. Fully producing a piece and compressing time are so much a part of the Olympics viewing experience.

“The biggest part of our Olympic pitch to the IOC is that the Olympics is not really about the sports that are showcased,” Wurtzel said. “It’s really about telling a story and packaging that story. Not many people would watch without that context.”

Wurtzel said that, if anything, he believes the live feed could even boost ratings, as those hard core enough to watch it, could spread the word to people who maybe weren’t planning on watching it even on a delayed basis.

For so long, NBC has been knocked for not going live. I think by live streaming everything, it will prove that a significant portion of the audience in fact does not want to watch the games live given the limited production that would take place. Why? Because the average American doesn’t know 90 percent of the names of the athletes going into the broadcast.

CNBC is part of NBCUniversal, which is majority owned by Comcast .

Questions? Comments? SportsBiz@cnbc.com