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NBC London Olympics coverage sets records despite angry tweets

NBC’s telecast of the London Olympics is toppling ratings records. But as they unfurl in the age of social media, coverage of the Games appears to be setting another record: for gripes.

Fans online have blasted the network for blacking out live coverage of the opening and closing ceremonies, and saving marquee athletic contests for a taped and heavily edited prime-time TV package. Jeff Jarvis, a prominent media guru, criticized NBC as struggling, whack-a-mole style, to maintain old-world business models in a new age.

On Twitter, detractors are uniting with the hash tag #nbcfail, and one British reporter based in Los Angeles had his account suspended after a series of blistering tweets attacking NBC.

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And yet hordes are watching. Over the weekend, Olympic programming averaged 35.8 million total viewers in prime time, according to Nielsen — the best first weekend for any Olympics in history. Friday’s opening ceremony alone drew more than 40 million viewers, even outpacing the start of the Atlanta Games in 1996. These are the kinds of numbers broadcast networks almost never see in an era of media fragmentation.

And unlike the Super Bowl and other top-rated sports events, the Olympics are being viewed almost entirely on a tape delay, at least in prime time. Surprisingly, audiences seem blithely unconcerned even about spoilers.

The elimination of world champion American gymnast Jordyn Wieber from the all-around competition was widely known before it was shown in prime time Sunday night. NBC news anchor Brian Williams has revealed results of Olympic matchups before the network’s sports division aired those contests.

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“If people are really hating the Olympic coverage, they have an odd way of showing it, as ratings are terrific by almost any objective measure,” said Andrew Billings, a professor and sports broadcasting expert at the University of Alabama.

In fact, Billings added, NBC is even managing to capitalize on Twitter by using the microblogging platform to build buzz for events that then translates into higher ratings for prime-time TV. And prime time is where NBC makes the money that helps pay for the $1.1 billion fee NBC paid to license the Games, plus another $200 million for production costs. Brian Roberts, chief of NBC parent Comcast, said that NBC had sold just over $1 billion of ad time as of Monday.

Complaining about Olympic coverage, of course, has been going on as long as they’ve been televised. In 2000, critics ripped NBC for what they deemed excessive use of tape delays. Those Summer Games were held in Sydney, meaning that live broadcasts of many key contests would have flickered across American TV screens in the wee hours of the morning.

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Dick Ebersol, then the chairman of NBC Sports, groused that much of the moaning was coming from jealous journalists. “Editors have had a hard time getting used to the dominance of television in the Olympics,” Ebersol said at the time. (In 1960, CBS became the first American network to broadcast the Games.)

What’s different now is the emergence of social media. Twitter launched in 2006; that same year, Facebook, previously targeted at high school and college students, opened to anyone 13 or older. Such platforms, since adopted by tens of millions of Americans, suddenly gave a broad platform to ordinary users whose rants would have remained mostly private in the past.

Twitter was abuzz Monday after its censure of Guy Adams, a West Coast-based British newspaper correspondent who was highly critical of NBC’s decision not to offer live streaming coverage of the Games’ opening ceremony. The social media site, which has partnered with NBC on the Games, shut down the account after he tweeted the corporate email address of a high-ranking NBC executive, Gary Zenkel, a violation of its privacy policy. (Zenkel is in charge of NBC’s Olympics coverage.)

NBC, in a statement, said that although it did alert Twitter that Adams had tweeted out personal information about an executive, it was Twitter’s decision, not NBC’s, to suspend Adams’ account.

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Four years ago in Beijing, NBC was able to sidestep many of the tape-delay problems because some of the most popular Olympic events could be held in the morning, which roughly correlated with U.S. prime time. But this year, with London time eight hours ahead of Los Angeles, executives had little choice but to go to tape for prime time.

NBC executives have pointed out that with 5,535 total hours of coverage, viewers can see almost everything live and in its entirety by turning to the network’s Olympics website. But fans who have done so have found live feeds sometimes marred by video hitches and excessive ads. The decision to black out live viewing of the opening ceremony led to a firestorm of protest Friday.

“NBC making an incredible bid for gold medal for Stupidest Network Ever,” Heidi N. Moore, New York bureau chief for NPR’s “Marketplace,” tweeted Friday. “No livestreaming, no broadcast, just pretending it doesn’t exist.”

Executives were stung by the early criticism but have argued that the ratings speak for themselves.

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“This audience number for the London Opening Ceremony is a great early sign that our strategy of driving people to watch NBC in prime time is working,” NBC Sports Group Chairman Mark Lazarus wrote in a statement after the Friday night numbers rolled in.

Experts point out that however frustrating NBC’s strategy might be to those who tweet, it still makes sense for a network whose core audience is still adults in their 40s.

“Advertising is what pays for the rights fees,” said Rick Burton, a professor of sports management at Syracuse University.

And that explains why the Olympic tape delays aren’t going away anytime soon. “Does it seem archaic? Yeah, in this day and age it does,” he added. “But I can completely understand why they’re doing it.”

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scott.collins@latimes.com

Times staff writer Meg James contributed to this report.

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