Does Olympics #NBCfail herald a media apocalypse?

Virginia Heffernan, Yahoo News
Yahoo News

The idea that NBC is stiffing Olympics fans just won’t let go.

A Gallup poll now suggests that most Americans hate NBC’s practice of airing popular events only at night, taped—and not as they happen. In fact, 59 percent want the Games live and on tape delay.
 
For shorthand, let’s keep calling that pissed-offness #nbcfail, following Steven Marx, the stay-at-home-dad who coined that hashtag on Twitter two weeks ago. Marx watched his tag go gold as Twitterers use it to bash NBC for tape-delayed coverage they consider partial, condescending, incomplete and just generally jacked.

Sure, the lumbering fatcat network (anyone out there old enough to call it “the peacock”?) is winning a jaw-dropping 33.6 million viewers a night with its exclusive stateside coverage of the London Olympics.

So, at 30 Rock, they’re crying all the way to the bank. But evidently some portion of those zillions now tune in largely to hate on NBC. These NBC-haters are like opera-goers who turn up at the Met just to boo the tenor. Booing, it seems, has always been a sport in itself.

What’s emerged in #nbcfail, then, is another Olympics: one that pits two superpowers against each other, 80s-style, and seems to express epic, all-or-nothing ideologies. Digital media versus traditional. The audience versus the TV.

The People versus the Crown.

And we know how that one ends.

The #nbcfail complaints started with the opening ceremonies when NBC stuttered its broadcast, meaning that U.S. viewers didn’t get to see the pageantry live. The network has also been holding for primetime broadcasts of major events when, in the Nixon-era cliché that NBC still likes to trot out, “friends and family are able to gather together to watch.” Rather than talk about how much more efficient primetime programming is for advertisers, the network disingenuously cites its audience’s need for “context”—meaning chintzy network fudge sauce and graphics and visual hoopla of highly produced backstory packages, which it’s harder to include with a live feed. This palaver doesn’t sit well with the #nbcfail crowd. As Mark Joyella, a Florida reporter who tweets as @standupkid, put it: “NBC thinks we're too dumb to watch the Olympics without help.”

Oof—fighting words. Raising specter of condescension. And obfuscation! And keeping the people in the dark and feeding them with stale tape-delayed bread and Misty May-Treanor circuses! Sounds like WAR.

Some Twitterers have been especially galled that they have been denied a glimpse of intriguing or meaningful events of global import: A tribute to the victims of the 7/7 London terrorist attacks for instance; or the heart-breaking timing snafu that cost one Korean fencer a gold in favor of set-piece Americana (more dreadful Michael Phelps hagiography.)

The charge on Twitter that NBC is treating its viewers as dumb hayseeds is dead serious. It’s a fascinating playing-out of the tension between social media, where users both consume and produce news and commentary, and the top-down broadcast model. Yeah, this time around it may sound silly that anyone’s whining about missing the Slovenia-China women’s judoko showdown. (FYI: Urska Zolnir of Slovenia took the gold in the 63 kilogram.) But next up are the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. These spectacles—tarted up and lighted and miked and staged almost entirely for primetime network broadcast—help put in place the American president, for Pete’s sake. With the networks dictating how they go down, voters might well demand the rawer story on Twitter or blogs.

And then, carrying even greater real-world weight, are the presidential debates. These, too, are run as artifacts of the networks’ heyday. The candidates end up sucking up to antiquated TV conventions that hamstring their messages and circumscribe beyond calculation how voters perceive them. If the networks are seen as shutting viewers out of democracy, as NBC is seen as having shut us out of the Olympics, can Occupy The Entire Media be far behind?

NBC’s Olympics has only been the latest test case in the Crown/People divide. If you want to read the rumblings of revolution yourself, check out #nbcfail. Recently @SiMichele tweeted, “Dear @nbc: the ratings are good because you have monopolized our access to the #olympics. NOT because your coverage is good.#nbcfail.”

“Monopolized our access”? That’s not idle whimpering. It’s a call to arms. Maybe even governments can learn from #NBCfail. As the networks continue to show down with disenfranchised viewers, stay tuned this fall for what might be the greatest Olympic event yet.