In an unprecedented move, NBC announced Tuesday that the Sydney Olympic Games will be shown entirely on tape delay, even on its cable networks.
The network is abandoning the path it took in Atlanta in 1996 and in Barcelona in 1992, which was to show events on tape but bill them as “plausibly live,” as well as the tack it took in Seoul in 1988, which was to push for the rescheduling of key track and field events so they could be shown live.
NBC officials here said they had no choice but to rely on tape delay. In September, when the Games begin, Sydney will be 18 hours ahead of Los Angeles--so when it’s evening in Australia and, for instance, the finals of big-ticket track events are underway, it’s early morning in the United States.
NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol said the network “never even considered” broadcasting live.
The network has a record $805-million commitment to the Sydney Olympics--a combined 437 1/2 hours of coverage on NBC and cable outlets CNBC and MSNBC. Cable will show 273 hours. The NBC Olympic Web site will carry instant results, athlete diaries and other features.
At the 1996 Atlanta Games, NBC televised 171 1/2 hours.
NBC has televised the Summer Games since 1988. The Sydney Games, however, mark the network’s first installment on a $3.5-billion contract that will keep the Olympics, summer and winter, on NBC through 2008. Rights fees alone for Sydney cost NBC $705 million, and an additional $100 million has gone toward logistics and production costs.
Ebersol invited reporters from The Times and four other newspapers to an internal production seminar--which previously was off-limits to outsiders--where he and other NBC executives discussed:
* The network’s policy switch away from “plausibly live"--meaning NBC showed an event on tape while pretending it was live.
* The growth of the cable market and the new emphasis on the Internet. The Sydney Games will be the Internet’s Olympic coming-out party. NBC is hoping for what marketing types call “synergy,” or, as explained by Tom Feuer, the coordinating producer of NBC’s Internet venture, “Our No. 1 goal is to complement and enhance the broadcast.”
* The importance of swimming, in particular the potential for a U.S.-Australia rivalry in the pool.
* The negligible effect of the corruption scandal surrounding Salt Lake City’s winning bid for the 2002 Winter Games, which dominated Olympic-related news coverage last year. “I don’t see any impact, and I didn’t see any then,” Ebersol said of the scandal.
The shift to tape--while being upfront about billing it on the air as tape--reflects NBC’s long history in wrestling with the issue.
In Seoul, when NBC Sports was not under Ebersol’s watch, Korean organizers requested, and ultimately received, a change in starting times of track races, in part to accommodate NBC--to move them back to midday or earlier in South Korea, when it was prime time in the U.S.
In Barcelona, under Ebersol, action was “plausibly live” for virtually everything shown on NBC in prime time. The time difference between Los Angeles and Barcelona in the summer is nine hours.
In Atlanta, many of the track finals were shown live. Still, Ebersol recalled, about 60% of NBC’s coverage was “plausibly live.”
Ebersol said he realized long ago that, should NBC win the rights to the Sydney Games, the action would have to be shown on tape.
And given the dramatic time difference, “plausibly live” inevitably became implausible, network executives said.
Ebersol said NBC has never asked Sydney organizers to switch any starting times. He also said NBC intends to tell American viewers that competition is being shown on tape delay.
In the Information Age, however, the decision to move exclusively to tape raises questions about the purpose of televising the Games.
Is it to show the results? Or, if newspapers, cable and the Internet have already made the results widely known by the time of telecast, does a prime-time TV show do anything but provide visual proof? Or, simply, is this tack the one that best suits a network that relies on a “storytelling” approach at the Games?
Craig Masback, chief executive officer of USA Track and Field, said: “Is it better to build interest in [running sensation] Marion Jones and her race and get people to tune in to find out what happened--or better to build interest in Marion Jones and her race, understand they’re going to know the outcome but get them to find out how it happened?
“I trust Dick Ebersol to know the answer to that question better than I do.”
Ebersol has often said that even the featured sports in the Summer Olympics--track, swimming, gymnastics--draw low ratings when televised in off-years but that the storytelling and event packaging NBC specializes in attracts viewers, women in particular.
As David Neal, NBC’s head of production for the Games, reminded the NBC crew in attendance: “People are looking for stories about people.”