Thoughts on Olympics TV Coverage
I think that the coverage provided by NBC of the Winter Olympics has been as good as it was ever going to be, given NBC’s constraints, which are that NBC ponied up a boatload of money for US rights to cover the games, and that February is sweeps month, so NBC has an added incentive to milk the ratings cow for all its worth. (Never mind the stupidity of sweeps month in general — how can you set ad rates for the next few months based on a four week sample that includes two weeks of Olympics?)

That said, I’d like to see better Olympics coverage. My point is that the current system is unlikely to produce it. NBC is airing Olympics coverage on three different channels, and we still miss out on a lot of sports pretty much altogether, and we don’t get to see all of the competitors in any sport (except perhaps men’s hockey). So what to change?

My thinking is that the IOC should not sell exclusive rights to the whole Olympics. I know that they raise a ton of cash with the current rights system, but it seems like an alternative system could be created that was also a cash cow and yet led to better coverage. Perhaps they could sell rights to each individual event, and see what happens. NBC could shell out the big bucks for the opening and closing ceremonies, figure skating, and some of the other ratings monsters, and they could leave things like Nordic skiing and curling to people that give a crap about them.

Even better would be a system with no exclusivity whatsoever. All of the Olympic events would be open game, and the Olympics could charge the people who opted to show the events based on a rate system of some kind. We could see figure skating on several networks at once, and maybe they could actually compete on quality of coverage, introducing competition to currently the miserable coverage of the biggest event in the winter games. Small networks could have beginning to end coverage of the smaller sports, or of the athletes that don’t make it on to the condensed coverage that NBC shows in prime time. (I want to see how the Armenian bobsleigh team does, for example.)

There are issues that would have to be worked out, like who gets to put their cameras where, but I think that allowing Americans to benefit from multiple approaches to covering the events at the games would be good for the Olympics and good for viewers. I certainly don’t think the current system is going to improve the viewing experience for Olympics fans anytime soon.