“Sport and mass media enjoy a very symbiotic relationship in American society” (McChesney, 1989, p. 49). Indeed, from the first closed-circuit televised broadcast of the Olympics in 1936 to the digitally-delivered Olympics of 2012, the Olympic games provide a compelling environment with which to explore the nature of the symbiosis. In particular, the London Olympics, the first to have a immersive digital media experience in addition to the traditional broadcast experience, sheds light on the conflict created by new forms of media and how new media threatens traditional commercial mass media business models in the world of sports coverage, perhaps upsetting the symbiotic balance. NBC Universal, which owned the broadcast rights to the London Olympics in the United States was heavily criticized for their coverage, accused of forcing audiences into viewing paradigms of an earlier era, failing to use new media to its potential, and putting the commercial interest over the public interest (Deitsch, 2012; Holmes, 2012; Moore, 2012; Stanley, 2012). Most of the criticism centered on NBC’s failure in three dimensions, real-time versus prime-time, cultural deafness in a global village, and tone-deaf coverage selection, prompting a new Internet meme, #NBCFail(Sandomir, 2012; Stanley, 2012). Despite the criticism, NBC’s coverage was a commercial success with the largest audience in media history (CNN, 2012). The London Olympics demonstrate that the mass media is dealing with a new reality as a result of a networked audience. Mainstream media organizations occupy a liminal existence between traditional mass media business models and new media expectations, attempting to step into the digital world while remaining tied to earlier paradigms.
Little does more to reflect the symbiotic relationship between media and sports as much as the financial arrangements between the media and sporting agencies. In the case of the London Olympics, NBC paid the International Olympic Committee $1.18 billion for the exclusive U.S. broadcast rights to the games (BBC, 2012), fees that provide the bulk of International Olympic Committee revenue (Associated Press, 2008). One could argue that the games would not exist in their present form without IOC broadcasting revenue streams. Moreover, with such hefty prices for broadcasts rights, NBC needed to assure that their coverage would generate significant advertising sales to make the broadcast a commercial success in a media environment where audiences have been fractured between traditional mass media and networked media. At risk, was not only the commercial success of the deal, but also NBC’s brand reputation in delivering a high-quality media experience that serves public interest in the media event.
By all accounts, the NBC broadcast of the Olympics was a commercial success. NBC had originally expected to lose $200 million on the broadcast, but ended up making a small profit as a result of larger than expected advertising revenue (Heistand, 2012) and the largest audience ever recorded for any media event (CNN, 2012). Moreover, NBC executives have linked to their primetime success to their digital programming, suggesting their digital coverage drove viewers to primetime audiences and calling their move into digital coverage “a big, bold, swing” (Heistand, 2012, p. 1). However, critics have argued that NBC’s digital coverage was missed opportunity because the network continued to think of coverage in traditional, monopolistic terms, assuming that viewers didn’t mind not seeing the events live, and couldn’t get the information elsewhere (Stanley, 2012). Indeed, NBC’s choice, to delay coverage until primetime, or only offer live digital streams to paying cable customers angered many viewers, although savvy Internet users streamed live coverage directly from the BBC using Internet proxies to circumvent NBC (Moore, 2012). Rather than a bold move into digitalized networked communication, NBC appeared to use digital content simply to draw the audience to primetime coverage, their traditional revenue source.
Moreover, criticism extended to whether NBC understood how the world had changed as a result of networked communication. NBC appeared to be deaf to the multi-cultural nature of the Olympic broadcast, opting to select coverage primarily of U.S. athletes and with color commentary that appeared to understand little of the world outside the United States. For instance, Moore (2012), described viewers embarrassment of the spectacle:
Having to watch trained TV anchors link Kazakhstan to Borat, describing Luxembourg as a central European nation, note that Uganda’s athletes come from the country of Idi Amin, mispronounce the names of Niger and the Cote D’Ivoire, and otherwise support every ugly American stereotype. (p. 1)
While NBC may be excused their coverage selection given that competition for revenue drives programming choices to the lowest common denominator (McQuail, 2010), the mono-cultural commentary displays both arrogance and ignorance of multicultural character of the global village enabled by the networked world.
The widespread criticism suggests that NBC appeared to underappreciate a variety of audience expectations, including the desire for the shared experience for live Olympic coverage, the expectation of niche, tailored content inherent in the digital world, and the desire of the audience to view the Olympics anywhere, anytime, and on any device. The resulting outcry from audience members over NBC’s botched monopoly coverage showed up on Twitter with the hashtag #NBCFail, however NBC executives appeared to discount the outcry as dissent from small minority (Richter, 1985), an attitude that demonstrates their misunderstanding of the network form of mass communication. For example, while over the last three days, there have been a mere 19,800 tweets with the hashtag #NBCFail, those tweets have made more than 15.5 million impressions (Hashtracking, 2012). Furthermore, the popular #NBCFail meme has transcended Olympic coverage and has entered popular Twitter discourse on NBC’s coverage of football, the mars rover, the election, NBC Nightly News, and even their fall line-up. While NBC’s Olympic coverage has been a commercial success, the damage done to their brand may be incalculable.
The #NBCFail meme is symptomatic of NBC’s failure to meet the expectations of an audience that become accustomed to new media in a networked world. Audiences expect to get coverage anywhere, anytime, and on any device. In addition, audiences have higher expectations of the social nature of global media events, expecting platforms than enable them to share the experience in a multicultural setting. However, while traditional media companies have the financial power that affords the opportunity for exclusive coverage of global sporting events, they are at the same time, unequipped to transition their business models inline with higher audience expectations, given it requires them to creatively destroy the very business model that provides that financial power. In fact, #NBCFail could have as easily been #ABCFail or #CBSFail, given most mainstream media organizations occupy a liminal existence between traditional mass media business models and business models that center around new media expectations.
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