This past weekend, I went on NPR’s On the Media to talk about NBC’s practice of tape-delaying big Olympic events until primetime—a strategy that had earned the network big ratings, big ad money and the enmity of a subset of fans who’ve had to wait until hours after the world knew results to watch the events on TV.
Well, credit where due: Yesterday afternoon, NBC aired the live women’s soccer semifinal between the U.S. and Canada, and it was glorious. After the two teams fought to a 3-3 tie in regulation time—amid some controversial officiating that I’ll let my Canadian readers weigh in on in the comments—the game went to overtime. And overtime again.* Until, with less than a minute left in extra time, Alex Morgan knocked in a beautiful header sideways into the Canadian goal to put the American women in the final.
* I am informed that in soccer, it’s properly called “extra time,” not “overtime,” and there are always two such periods. I’m certain that’s true! (Also, the rest of the world calls it “football”—why do you Yanks call your sport “football” when you’re allowed to use your hands!, &c.) Anyway, apologies: I am the textbook non-sports-fan casual Olympic viewer.
It was a thrilling, suspenseful, exhausting example of how there’s really no substitute for live TV when it comes to big Olympic moments. I suppose some might complain that you needed cable to see the game, which aired on the NBC Sports Network cable channel. (NBC showed a reel of highlights at the beginning of last night’s primetime show.) But there is, after all, only one NBC broadcast network and only 24 hours in a day—a two-hour-plus soccer game would dominate an awfully big chunk of its limited broadcast time. (Not to mention, there are no breaks for commercials.) Any Olympic broadcast is going to require some kind of compromise, and using NBC’s cluster of cable channels to carry live events seems like a reasonable one.
Anecdotally, I’ve heard from more Olympic-obsessed viewers that NBC seemed to step up its live coverage last weekend vs. the first weekend of the Games. I’m not sure if the actual amount of live events increased, or, if so, if it was coincidence or NBC adjusting its coverage. But yesterday showed that, while I can appreciate a good primetime highlights package, sometimes there’s just no substitute for letting the cameras run, and hoping something amazing happens.