What Olympic tape-delay controversy? NBC still doesn't get it
Despite hundreds of angry e-mails, NBC Universal stands by its decision to tape-delay Winter Olympic TV coverage, even on the West Coast. The response to our questions? We're still waiting.
Seattle Times staff columnist
WHISTLER, B.C. — I did my best.
Called NBC Universal. E-mailed them. Got a guy on the phone. Struck out.
I was simply trying to make a point: Look, folks. I'm getting deluged here. Buried by e-mail, swamped with calls. Hundreds of them. All expressing outrage about NBC's coverage of the 2010 Winter Games — particularly its decision to delay every major event to West Coast viewers.
Monday, I got an e-mail back from an NBC Universal vice president for communications, based in Vancouver. Happy to chat, he said. I called him to set up a phone interview. Alas, like most people in these "communications" jobs these days, Christopher McCloskey wanted to speak only on "background" about NBC's tape-delays.
I said no, I'd like someone from NBC to answer some questions from Seattle viewers, on the record.
McCloskey seemed surprised, because "nothing's really changed" in NBC's philosophy about this, he said, and Seattle remains, as usual, near the top in Olympic TV ratings. (An NBC Universal release Tuesday said 129 million U.S. viewers watched Olympic coverage the first four nights, 4 million more than tuned in for the 2006 Turin Games over the same period and the most since 1994.)
True, I said. But two things have changed in Seattle since the last Olympics. One, CBC lost its Olympic contract, leaving most Western Washington viewers with no live-coverage alternative to NBC.
And two, the Olympics, in case NBC hadn't noticed, are happening right up the road from Seattle. "That makes it different," I said.
Huh, he said. He agreed to call back a couple hours later.
A bit later, McCloskey sent an e-mail — apparently intended to be fodder for our discussion. In it, he had clipped comments from Jay Posner, a San Diego Union-Tribune columnist, who had opined that, in essence, the public at large couldn't care less whether the Olympics were broadcast live.
One of the snips was from a column Jan. 22, in which Posner wrote: "As I've been writing for eight years now, I'm not going to get worked up about the other coverage being delayed because I think it bothers media members more than the typical Olympics viewer, especially on the West Coast, where ratings traditionally have been strong."
Reading this, it suddenly struck me: NBC Universal still doesn't get it. They think it's me.
They honestly believe their own market research, which suggests people in every market in the United States would rather watch Olympic events three to 12 hours after the fact than when they actually occur.
So I wrote McCloskey back in an attempt to convey the gravity of the situation. I thanked him for that other columnist's (unsupported) opinion, but said I didn't consider it relevant. I told him I have hundreds of angry messages from readers indicating my readers do, indeed, care about live coverage.
"This isn't me creating an issue," I wrote. "It's a large, large number of people, who are doing everything from suggesting boycotts of NBC to urging the FCC to cancel its license."
Perhaps the words "boycott" and "FCC license" were a bit strong. Because when McCloskey finally called back, he once again refused to answer basic questions about NBC's coverage without first discussing exactly what I planned to write, again "on background."
I told him my position on NBC's delays was clear, and available to anyone who wants to look in my column archives. But I could see no valid reason to discuss the issue "on background."
And I reemphasized that the howls of protest I'm hearing are coming from viewers, unsolicited.
"I'm at the Olympics," I told McCloskey. "I can watch whatever I want, in person. I couldn't care less about what's on NBC. But I'm telling you, my readers do care. It's the hottest Olympic topic out there right now in Seattle."
He told me it's usually just the tiny, vocal minority that speaks out.
Finally, realizing I would never speak with him "on background" about this or anything else, McCloskey offered to have me submit questions in writing, which NBC, he said, would evaluate and decide whether or not to answer. Fine, I said. I did so, and here they are:
1) Please explain NBC's general rationale for its tape-delayed Olympics coverage.
2) Why is the Olympics treated differently by NBC than any other major sporting event? If it meant higher ratings, would NBC delay broadcasts of the Super Bowl?
3) If the goal is to put the Games on when people are home to watch, why stick to prime-time packaging even on weekends, when people are free to watch all day long?
4) Does NBC consider or care that delaying most events until late night makes them unavailable to families with children?
5) Why not broadcast events live on cable channels during the daytime and then recap later in prime time on the network?
6) Is it normal for a local affiliate (KING-TV) to take the unusual step of issuing a statement on its Web site, saying "don't blame us for this, it's all NBC?"
McCloskey made it clear that NBC isn't unwilling to discuss the issue, in general. Just not with me. Fine. Works for me; I've got ski races to cover. So maybe all you folks can just cut to the chase and ask them yourself.
I'm telling them you're angry. They don't believe it. Clearly, it's time they heard directly from that tiny, vocal minority.
Ron Judd: 206-464-8280 or at firstname.lastname@example.org