Viewer dependence on the dreaded Olympics television tape delay—as much a part of the Games' tradition as any world-record swim or gold-medal sprint—may finally be meeting its end.
The money quote in Sandomir's piece comes from Rick Cordella, vice president and general manager of NBC Sports Digital Media, who told the New York Times, "Whatever is on schedule that day, if cameras are on it, we’ll stream it."
That comes, however, with a couple of caveats.
Sandomir says big-ticket events such as track and field, swimming and beach volleyball will not be archived on the website until after they are shown in prime time.
Those that miss the online coverage will have to wait for an evening showing or check back later that night for archived footage.
The NBC press release also says, "The vast majority of live streaming will only be available to authenticated cable, satellite or Telco customers."
Translation: If you don't pay for television service, you can't watch online. Nice try, techies.
Even so, this is a big step forward from Beijing.
Again, via Sandomir:
"Two years ago, at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, only hockey and curling were streamed live in order to protect prime time. At the 2008 Beijing Summer Games, 25 sports were streamed live but none of them were important to the evening broadcast, which is usually at least four hours long."
Speaking from a fan's perspective, this feels more like a relief than a triumph.
The practice of saving big Olympic events for prime-time television felt archaic in an era of live-tweeting and instant information.
Even in 2008, it was naive to think a tape delay could hold viewer suspense and push ratings. If people wanted to find the results, there were more than a few avenues available.
It seems NBC has embraced that reality and capitulated to the hard-core Olympic folks who want to see the action in real time. And the casual fan, one hopes, will still be plenty happy to tune in for a four-hour coverage block after dinner.
As Sandomir points out, there is even some indication that streaming an event live before a tape-delay broadcast can actually boost ratings.
"One piece of evidence—albeit one that does not involve delaying an event until prime time—was last year’s French Open semifinal between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. The match was streamed live on the West Coast but was seen by television viewers only on tape delay.
"As a result, the West Coast TV rating was higher than the one for the East, where the match was televised live."
If that pattern holds for the Olympics, NBC is in for a ratings bump.
And even if it doesn't, this move still felt inevitable. London is five hours ahead of New York, ruling out the possibility of live coverage in prime time.
People are going to know the outcomes before dinnertime, so why not give the truly dedicated a chance to watch live?
And who knows? Perhaps a live-streamed Olympics will inspire some of the surreptitious, at-work viewing culture most associated with the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
Bottom line: Sports fans wait four long years for this spectacle, and it's no surprise they want access to their favorite sports in real time.
It seems NBC has gotten that message.
Olympics history is full of great moments relegated to tape delay, but my favorite comes from the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid, New York. Thirty years later, many folks don't remember that ABC aired the Olympic hockey semifinal between the United States and the Soviet Union—the later-named Miracle on Ice—an hour after the game ended.
In a 2010 column for Sports Illustrated, Joe Posnanski reflects on the seeming spontaneity of that broadcast and the technological limitations that made it possible.
"I have seen polls through the years that suggested most of the people who watched the game on television did not know the outcome. I know that my father and I did not. That shows you how long ago 1980 was in terms of technology. There's no way you could keep that a secret now."
Lead image courtesy of USA Today.