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Social Media Users Express Disappointment with NBC’s Olympics Coverage

July 31, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Using hashtags like #NBCFail, Olympics fans have tweeted complaints of delayed and incomplete programming and streaming restrictions for the London Games. Gwen Ifill talks to USA Today's Christine Brennan and The New York Times' Richard Sandomir about how online viewers are experiencing NBC's coverage of the 2012 Olympics.

GWEN IFILL: The performances in these first few days of competition have put the athletes and the Games themselves under a microscope.

We look at the wins, the losses and the coverage with Christine Brennan, who’s covering the Olympics in London for USA Today, ABC, and others, and Richard Sandomir, sports, media, and business reporter for The New York Times.

Chris, we’re warning everybody that, if they don’t want to know what happened, they shouldn’t listen.

But you were at the gymnastics — women’s gymnastics gold medal win this afternoon. Tell us about it.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN, USA Today: Yes, Gwen, it was really stirring. And it was something.

It was a dominating performance by the American women. I think a lot of people know about Jordyn Wieber two days ago. Well, she came back on the vault, the very first person out there for the U.S., nailed it, and just set off a tidal wave really of performances, 12 for 12. Americans didn’t have a major mistake and won the gold medal going a way over the Russians.

In fact, by the time that the Americans and the Russians got to the floor exercise, the final of the four rotations, all the Americans had to do was a couple somersaults, it seemed like, because the Russians had made major mistakes on the balance beam and the floor.

So, it was the biggest victory by a women’s gymnastics team in the modern era of gymnastics and, for the U.S., its second gold medal ever, first since Atlanta in 1996, so it’s been 16 years. And this is a pint-sized team that had an industrial-strength performance here today.

GWEN IFILL: And I have to ask you about Michael Phelps, who finally broke the record everybody was expecting he would have broken already. Tell us about that.


Well, Michael Phelps did break — he’s now the winningest Olympian in history, 19 medals. That is extraordinary. But he kind of backed into it. He won — he set the record with the U.S. relay. So, that was — they won the gold medal.

But, before that, in his signature event, Gwen, the 200 butterfly — this is the event that he made the Olympics in 2000 as a 15-year-old — he is never beaten in this event. And he was caught at the end, a finish reminiscent of what happened four years ago for those who remember in the butterfly, where Michael Phelps caught his competitor at the very end.

This time, someone caught Michael Phelps. I never thought I would say these words, that Michael Phelps faded in the stretch in his signature event, the 200 butterfly, but he did. And that has to be a great disappointment for him tonight.

GWEN IFILL: Now, Rich Sandomir in New York, we should point out that neither of the events we just described have been broadcast here yet on East Coast time in the United States, shortly before 6:00 — around 6:00 p.m.

So, what has been the reaction to that? We have seen this before, where people get taped-delay broadcasts. But there seems to be a special outcry this time.

RICHARD SANDOMIR, The New York Times: Well, there’s a special outcry this time because, in past Olympics, there’s always been discontent about NBC tape-delaying and, before NBC, ABC tape-delaying, especially European and other foreign Olympics.

Now the discontent has merged with a lot of discontent and anger about the fact that NBC is sending live streams of all the sports events, but a lot of people are having problems with the live streams. They are getting freezing pictures, skipping pictures, macro-blocking. All that has merged on Twitter into this platform of outrage that has come to be called #NBCfail.

GWEN IFILL: So, is it technology that’s the problem this time, or is it just that people now have this platform to complain in a more amplified way?

RICHARD SANDOMIR: Well, I think it’s both those things.

The complaints may be no more of a percentage than there was in the past, but the technology has created expectations. You go from TV to streaming, people think it should be the exact same kind of quality. I expect the same kind of quality. They’re saying it’s not anything on their end coming from London.

It might be the age of your computer. It might be the broadband capability, the bandwidth of your broadband service. No one really knows for sure. But on three different levels that I have tried, two P.C.s and a laptop, I have not gotten a smooth picture.

And I think that’s the experience a lot of people are having.


GWEN IFILL: Chris, before you went to London, you said this would be the Twitter Olympics. And in fact you have been tweeting up a storm from there.

Does this kind of — these kinds of complaints, this kind of debate, does it affect what you see, what you cover, what people are saying about it?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Actually, it doesn’t, Gwen.

And I, of course, have been following Rich and listening to him now. And it is just fascinating, because we could have really all anticipated this, and when NBC treats the Olympics as some 1950s “Ozzie & Harriet” broadcast, you know, where mom and dad put up their feet at 8:00 and we all sit around and watch from 8:00 to 11:00.

Those days are long gone. This is the 21st century. And so, from my perspective, I’m treating it, of course, as a news event. This is not just sports or entertainment. This is news. We are journalists. And we’re covering this very seriously, as, of course, Rich is as well from his perspective.

And for people to get angry that there’s Twitter, spoilers on Twitter, well, for heaven’s sakes, of course there are. These events are live. And they’re news. And they’re important. And I think NBC is doing a great disservice to itself and frankly embarrassing itself. Because it should come into the 21st century and show them live and then, if they want to package them beautifully for people for prime time, do that.

And I will bet you their ratings overall would still be pretty good.

GWEN IFILL: Well, it should be said you mentioned ratings, Rich. It seems like their ratings have not been affected by this controversy.

RICHARD SANDOMIR: The ratings have been sensational. Certainly from London five hours away, you can’t do a live Olympics because nothing is live at prime time in the United States.

Christine is right. You can do live during the day. And it may well stoke more ratings at night. If somebody is saying there’s this great Missy Franklin race, you might want to tune in later. You may see it early on in streaming. You may see it early on, on NBC in the afternoon. You may see — you may want to see it again at nighttime.

No one really knows for sure what the impact would be, but, you know, this is a template that was created by Roone Arledge in the ’60s. And for the most part, even with the addition of more cable coverage and the addition of streams, NBC treats the late-night — the prime-time broadcast as if it were still a supersized version of what Roone Arledge did in ABC in the ’60s.

GWEN IFILL: By courting the social media the way ABC has, Rich, are they kind of dying by the sword that they have been wielding?

RICHARD SANDOMIR: I’m sorry. Could you repeat that?

GWEN IFILL: By doing what they have been doing in courting social media, courting Facebook and Twitter users, are they living by the — are they dying by the sword that they wielded?

RICHARD SANDOMIR: You know, it’s hard to say.

They have four more Olympics coming up. Do they want to keep stoking the anger of viewers as they go to Sochi and Rio? Rio is a time zone similar to ours, so you will probably see a lot more live Olympics. But still the NBC business model is built on building an audience in prime time, so that they can repay their growing rights fees.

It’s a very tough thing to be both in one century and in another and trying to satisfy people who are more than ever motivated by technology and by instantly complaining or talking about their experiences on social media. It’s a very tough thing to follow.

This isn’t 1980, where the great men’s hockey team game against the Russians was also on tape delay. People didn’t know any different. Now they know a lot different. They know the tricks that NBC has been doing, the tricks that get them a lot of ratings, but also create a lot of anger.

GWEN IFILL: And, Christine, whether we’re watching it live, whether we’re watching it online, or whether we’re watching it in a taped package tomorrow, what are you watching for, which events?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Well, I think more swimming, because especially Phelps, who is not performing well individually, I think that’s a fascinating story, Missy Franklin again in swimming, and then gymnastics Thursday, so another day or so away.

We have got that women’s individual all-around final, the one that Jordyn Wieber is not in, but Gabby Douglas could become the first person of color to win this prized gold medal. And Gabby, of course, is from the United States and one of the two Americans in that. And she is just terrific to watch tonight in the team competition. Watching her today this afternoon was terrific. And then she will now be competing for that gold medal.

And I think it would be a historic gold if she could win it.

GWEN IFILL: One way or the other, we will be watching all of it.

Chris Brennan in London and Rich Sandomir in New York, thank you both very much.