In a world where Twitch and live video platforms are rapidly emerging, NBC’s Olympic coverage – often tape-delayed and difficult to track – deprived American audiences of the context they seek so hungrily. Shared, simultaneous experiences. The context a moment in time only provides once.
As many Americans know, NBC once again received very unenthusiastic reviews of its Olympic coverage this year. And once again, NBC cast blame elsewhere – spinning a tale about how millenials aren’t interested in the Olympics, or that there’s too much entertainment out there competing for those eyeballs. (Rolling Stone: NBC Blames Millenials for Low Ratings)
It’s ironic that NBC seems to be missing one of the most important learnings from this year’s coverage – a learning that the network behind live broadcasts of musicals for these past few years should have known far beforehand. And that learning? Audiences today yearn for a REAL-TIME connection with the content, the creators/athletes, and their fellow audience. In truth, the Olympics should have been an intensely viral moment, a breakout with audiences primed by Twitch, Facebook Live, Snapchat and Periscope to value connection with a vast community above all else.
And yet – beyond reason – NBC chose to tape-delay the near-entirety of the Olympic coverage they presented, including the all-important opening and closing ceremonies. This during an Olympics staged within a timezone shared with parts of the US. Personally, I still watched the Olympics – but on DVR, on my own time since there was no possible way to watch live. In that way, NBC shot themselves in the foot too – if I’m on DVR, I’m skipping those expensive commercials.
The further, more insidious effect of this tape delay was to strip audiences in the US of the opportunity to interact in real time with those around the world enjoying the event as it happened. Worse yet, the time delay made social media a spoiler minefield: if Olympic fans with no access to the live content logged onto Twitter, the results were often immediately ruined, stripping the joy of watching the journey. Much as we’d like to think the content is still compelling once the results are known, it’s just not the same watching the struggle between two runners when you know how it’s going to end. You can’t try and empathize with the uncertainty they face during the race when you can see the finish line for them.
For the uninitiated, Twitch and Periscope are two of the current, highly engaged communities around live content. Viewers can interact with the person or broadcasters behind a stream in real time – providing reactions, feedback, monetary support, or even controlling the action onscreen in some way. Generally, the larger the audience, the less it becomes about controlling the on-screen outcome and the more it becomes sharing your real-time reactions and seeing those of your fellow viewers, all without fear of spoilers or manipulation since the content and events are unfolding in real time. While it can bring unsavory elements out of the woodwork, at its best live interactive content engenders empathy, discovery and delight.
And NBC’s broadcasts were astonishingly old-media and noninteractive. In a world where every TV morning show has a Twitter feed or some form of audience conversation, NBC once again brought us a parade of (generally older white) men (and occasionally women or people of color) talking AT us about the spectacle instead of talking WITH us. Of course, as someone who’s been a presence on Twitch for 6 months now, and experimenting with personal streams as a solo woman caster, I know what opening yourself to live chat means. It’s not always pretty. But it’s often worth it, especially if you work in advance to partner with a group of like-minded moderators. Plenty of brands are doing this on Twitch already.
Yes, NBC streamed events live online. But their app and website made the live schedule almost impossible to ascertain, in an attempt to drive people towards the mainstream airings. Plus the online requirement for cable provider authentication seems almost insulting in a world where NBC is still a broadcast network, streaming over the airwaves with an antenna. Why limit the live access to those affluent enough to have cable AND high-speed internet? Many must choose only the high speed internet since it’s becoming a requirement for many life tasks. Plus with such a narrow funnel of folks in the US watching live, there was no opportunity for that visceral community sharing without coordinating one’s own friends to watch simultaneously.
These are all larger, procedural complaints. There were also content issues – a commentator saying “this is really beautiful” does not do the audience any more good than their eyes can already see. Many of the live commentators were unable to bridge the gap between the audience and the live experience, failing to describe the elements cameras don’t readily capture (the scents, the vibrations, the mood of the crowd, the quiet moments to the side.) Greater diversity in hosts would go a long way to solving the periodic tone-deafness of the broadcasts.
That note aside, the immediacy issue doesn’t have to be fixed all at once or overnight. NBC could easily identify a few key sports to “go live” with community support and real-time broadcasts as a trial. The Olympics would be a new scale for this form of conversation, but the world championship competitions leading up to the Olympics would be a fantastic place to pilot that community.
It is a shame that the US missed out, largely, on the frenetic 17-day foray into live event interactions enjoyed by much of the rest of the world. Hopefully in two years, NBC can find the humility to innovate on their well-worn Olympic formula. Or that those in charge of Olympic licensing will see past old partnerships to new opportunities that can bring the US closer to the rest of the world for those inspiring, humbling 2 and a half weeks of deliriously optimistic sport. I can think of no better next frontier for the online content communities of today than the Olympic celebration of human capability and coexistence.
And though no athletes may ever read this post, I thank them all for their dedication and for sharing so much of themselves during the Olympics. There are many of us inspired to push towards our best selves by watching the perseverence, dedication and sportsmanship on display. This was my first time watching the Summer Olympics since taking up running, and it lent a whole new level of connection and awe to what I saw. Thank you and congratulations, regardless of the result.
Curious about Twitch? I costar in “Shadowrun: Corporate SINs”, a weekly live broadcast of a Shadowrun RPG game on Twitch channel HyperRPG. The entire broadcast is free; the community is great; and you get to watch actors improvising and exploring a rich cyberpunk fantasy world as the community reacts in real time to the adventure unfolding. 6PM = 9PM PT Wednesdays on http://twitch.tv/hyperrpg; or sample past episodes (minus chat) on YouTube.