NBC Beijing 2008

Now that the dust has settled at the Bird’s Nest Stadium and the Olympics flame has been extinguished, I can finally collect my thoughts and comment on the global circus that was the media coverage. This year’s coverage was bigger, more intense, more global, more comprehensive, more technologically-advanced, more highly-defined, and more quickly deployed than ever in history. But there were a few hiccups.

In the States, NBC was the network tapped with with covering the games. A coveted prize, and a massive undertaking. Generally, NBC did well — they flooded our airways and cable streams with more coverage than could ever be consumed, and they did it will sparkle. And for the first time, coverage was attempted (and heavily promoted) on the Internet. First, let me talk about the television coverage.

NBC covers sports well. They have a team of knowledgeable commenters and the crew to get the job done. The graphics are always top notch and innovative, yet controlled and universally-appealing — never an easy task.

Beijing intro graphics

NBC Beijing 2008

Bob Costas was again appointed to be the main presenter of the games, covering the sports desk in China and interviewing some of the higher profile athletes, like those of swimming and gymnastics. And he did well. But after watching him, and moreso the rest of the commentators, I am reminded of how painful it can be to endure the clichés and cheeseball idioms that spew from the American sportscaster. Over-the-top emotional pitches, absurd hyperboles, and the constant need to hear themselves speak are the most apparent symptoms. Here’s a clip that illustrates how much I don’t need to hear the commentary.

Hey guys, just shut up and watch the race

The AP is slightly more subdued than normal sportscasters

Perhaps it’s because of my time living in Britain, or even watching the Spanish-language channels here in America, but I just can no longer tolerate mainstream media’s over-important tones and falsely-dramatic language. Ugh.

The second problem with the television coverage can be summed up in one word: ads. My lord, how many ads can you fit in between 30-second races? I dunno, NBC, how many? Because this year’s games were the most viewed in history, the commercials carried the highest pricetags in history. Following the model of the Super Bowl (and Friends’ finale), advertisers created custom ads for the Olympics — except this time they’re intended to make us shed a tear of patriotic humility, rather than burp out a chuckle of puerile humour. Here’s a taste of the sappiness…

I commented earlier this month how the Olympics have become “three weeks of sappy ads … plus archery”. And I stick to that. In this era of Tivo, Hulu, and the Internet, many of us 21st century tv-viewers bemoaned the 17 days we were forced to watch ad after ad just to get our sporting fix.

However, as cynical as I am towards conventional television advertising, I have to admit that the Visa ads, especially those produced with almost-instant results-based themes, were pretty sharp. Go World.

Morgan Freeman does great voiceovers

As the Olympics are a global affair, they don’t always occur in our local timezone. This always presents the problem of when to air coverage. With China 12 hours ahead of the East Coast, some events aired live during Prime Time, but many were delayed up to 12 hours for purposes of commerciality. Is this the right thing to do? In the spirit of openness and co-operation, should a live sporting event be delayed to serve the whims of one network? The time-shifting also presented a problem for those on the West Coast of the US where some events were delayed even further to abide by the classic West Coast Delay. Tom Merritt and Rafe Needlemen of CNet talked further about this topic on a recent episode of their show, The Real Deal.

Next, to the Internet! This was the first Olympics, and really, the first large-scale sporting event, where coverage was presented online as an alternative to tuning and spending time on your living room couch. At least, that was the theory. NBC put into place every possible safeguard to prevent that audiences didn’t spend too much time on their website, but instead vegged out on the couch in conventional fashion. This paranoid desire to force us to watch commercials caused them to handicap the coverage and pick and choose what they send over the tubes. For example, while I was able to load up Badminton coverage live on the web as it happened in China, no Swimming events were available until after the events aired later that night. Even then, only select races were available as archives and highlights. In short, the Internet was not the alternate viewing experience it was touted as, and it certainly wasn’t the all-you-can-eat infobank that we geeks desired it to be. It was a skeleton of it’s potential and served more to wet our appetites than to satisfy us fully.

Additionally frustrating about Internet coverage was that each country’s media outlet of choice was the only company allowed to serve Internet content to the populous of that nation. In other words, we Americans could only watch online content from NBC. In Britain, BBC was in command, and in Canada it was CBC. (Although Canada and Britain’s stations are publicly funded, so it’s a slightly different story) Firewalls and other Internet misdirection were put into place to entrap users and prevent them from peeking into the walled garden of their neighbors. Again, where is the Olympic spirit of unity and collaboration between nations? Is the Internet not the single most global tool even presented to mankind? Should NBC and other networks used 20th century corporatism and old-fashioned greed to sandbox their viewers? Methinks they should not.

And here’s something shocking about the Internet experiment — it was beneficial for NBC! Internet traffic didn’t canabalise television watching, but it bolstered it. Instead of ignoring the broadcasts, folks were checking the web sites and getting excited about the upcoming televised broadcasts. The next day, they were back online watching replays and highlights. Word of mouth took hold and viewers were using the Internet in coordination with television to get their friends and families involved in the Games. The Internet worked. This lesson has been hard to swallow for old media companies, whether they be in television, movies or music. Hey guys, the Internet fuels our desire for media, not extinguishes it. Leo Laporte talked about this in his monologue on his The Tech Guy radio show the other day. As an experienced broadcaster, he’s usually better at phrasing things than I am.

NBC Beijing 2008, not for Mac users

One more thing about the Internet coverage: it didn’t work for everyone! Because NBC decided to use Microsoft‘s Silverlight technology for their live video streams, users were first prompted to install the Silverlight plugin, and if they had the patience and tech savvy to endure, they might get to see the games. But for novice users, the barrage of demands and errors was too much. For users of Linux and older PowerPC Macs, we were out of the loop entirely. Silverlight, being a Microsoft property, is proprietary and not an open Internet standard. Way to bring the world together.

PC World touches on this and other topics during in their rundown of the Olympic Tech winners and losers. TechCrunch, being a bunch of Silicon Valley geeks, were somewhat harsher in their criticism of NBCs web strategy, calling it ‘a loser’.

There were, of course, some oddities to do with the media coverage. For example, this year’s Opening Ceremonies set a record for most HD cameras in one place at one time. Considering every country in the world was there, it’s not surprising. Also, because of the heavy-handed police tactics in China, civilian coverage was at a bare minimum. Considering the number of tourists in Beijing, there was a shockingly few numbers of videos being posted online. It’s almost as if everyone with a camera was strapped to a chair in some dark room, even if they were just a tourist. Hmmm.

And the media coverage didn’t end when the flame went out. In this, the YouTube and Hulu era, that footage will live forever in smaller, bite-size chunks. Consumable when we want it. If this year’s media coverage had one theme it is this: next time will be even better — the media coverage will be just like being there. The world will come to us, whether by airwaves or electrons.

One final note, in the WTF category, a cake:

Olympics Cake

Obviously, there was some miscommunication about what the client wanted on to be drawn on this custom cake. I mean, seriously.