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#NBCfail Economics

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Reading the #nbcfail hashtag has been at least as entertaining as much of NBC's coverage of the Olympics. It's also enlightening -- economically enlightening.

There's the obvious:

  • The people formerly known as the audience have a voice and boy are they using it to complain about NBC's tape delays of races and the opening ceremonies, about its tasteless decision to block the UK tribute to its 7/7 victims, and about its commentators' idiocies (led by Meredith Vieira's ignorance of the inventor of the Web; they could have used their extra three hours to enlighten her).
  • Twitter is a gigantic spoiler machine. It would be nearly impossible to isolate oneself from news of results because even if you don't read Twitter or Facebook or go to the net, someone you know, someone you run into will. Information can't be controlled. Amen.
  • We in the U.S. are being robbed of the opportunity to share a common experience with the world in a way that was never before possible.

Those arguments have all been made well and wittily on #nbcfail.

The counterargument has been an economic one: NBC has to maximize commercial revenue, which means maximizing prime time viewership, to recoup the billions paid for the rights to broadcast, billions that pay for the stadiums and security and ceremony. The argument is also made that NBC's strategy is working because it is getting record ratings.

But there's no way to know whether airing the Phelps race or the opening ceremonies live on TV would have decreased or increased prime-time viewing. Indeed, with spoilers everywhere, viewing is up. I can easily imagine people watching the Phelps defeat live tweeting their heads off telling friends to watch it in prime time. I can imagine people thanking NBC for curating the best of the day at night and giving folks a chance to watch the highlights. I tweeted: "I'm waiting for NBC to take credit for idea Twitter helps build buzz & ratings for tape-delayed events." (Which led Piers Morgan's producer, Jonathan Wald, to take joking credit and then the executive producer of the NBC Olympics, Jim Bell, to offer it. To his credit, Bell has engaged with at least one tweeted suggestion.)

If NBC superserved its viewers, the fans, wouldn't that be strategy for maximum audience? The BBC is superserving its viewers. I went to TunnelBear so I could sample what the BBC is offering on the air and in its iPlayer -- which, of course, we can't use in the U.S. -- and it's awesome. But, of course, the BBC is supported by its viewers' fees. So the argument is that the BBC serves viewers because they're the boss while NBC serves advertisers because they pay the bills.

I still don't buy it. I don't want to buy it, for that pushes media companies to put all they do behind walls, to make us pay for what we want. I still see a future for advertising support and free content. I still believe that if NBC gave the fans what they wanted rather than trying to make them do what NBC thinks it wants, NBC could win by growing audience and engagement and thus better serving sponsors. I ask you to imagine what Olympics coverage would look like if Google had acquired the rights. It would give us what we want and make billions, I'll bet.

The problem for NBC as for other media is that it is trying to preserve old business models in a new reality. To experiment with alternatives when billions are at stake is risky. But so is not experimenting and not learning when millions of your viewers can complain about you on Twitter.

The bottom-line lesson for all media is that business models built on imprisonment, on making us do what you want us to do because you give us no choice, is no strategy for the future. And there's only so long you can hold off the future.

The bottom line for Olympics fans is that, as Bill Gross pointed out, much of the blame for what we're seeing -- and not seeing -- falls to the IOC and the overblown economics of the games. There is the root of greed that leads to brand police who violate free speech rights in the UK by chilling use of the innocent words "2012" and "games," and tape delays, and branded athletes. This is the spirit of the Olympics Games? It is now.