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NBC's Olympic Coverage: Gold, Silver or Lead?

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The New York Times’ Richard Sandomir takes exception to the way NBC covered the upset U.S. victory over Canada in hockey Sunday night. Which is to say: it hardly covered it at all, breaking briefly into coverage for the end of the game, which played in full on cable channel MSNBC. (Where it drew over 8 million viewers, huge numbers for both hockey and MSNBC.) Instead, NBC’s primetime focused mostly on snippets of more popular (on U.S. Olympic TV anyway) sports like ice dancing.

To serious sports fans, for whom the U.S. win was big news, the decision stunk on ice. But as we all know by now, the Winter Olympics is not put on TV for serious sports fans alone.

I’m inclined to cut NBC slack on this one. The Olympics in the abstract may be a metaphor for human struggle and triumph. But the Olympics as a TV event you paid billions of dollars to carry are a business proposition, and as such I can hardly blame NBC for wanting to put on the show that pleases the most people on average. Or, more likely, displeases them somewhat, but in more or less equal amounts across the board.

NBC is kind of like a major airline. Its goal is to provide as many people as possible with an experience that is just barely not-unpleasant enough, so that they’ll grit their teeth and come back next time despite their unpleasant memories.

As Sandomir notes, the problem with hockey in primetime is that it can’t be diced into nuggets, as you can with individual ski runs or skating performances. It really only works in full. In primetime, NBC may be putting on a sort of sports sampler medley for dilettantes, but when it comes to winter sports, most of us are dilettantes.

As for me, my complaint with the Olympics is: if you’re airing an event on tape-delay, there’s no excuse not to have it end on time as scheduled. Yesterday, I spent a half-hour watching women’s biathlon, only to have the TiVo recording shut off just before the end of an exciting sprint to the finish. (Yes, I know you’re supposed to pad the recording time for live events—but hardly any of the Olympics is airing live.)

I suppose this might be a deliberate strategy to avoid time-shifting with TiVo, but trust me when I say that I’m not in any case going to plan my daily schedule around biathlon. We dilettantes have our limits.

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