The Summer Olympics kicked off in Beijing, China, last Friday. I know that because I heard a description of the opening ceremony on ESPN radio Friday afternoon, several hours after the actual event, but several more before it would be shown ďliveĒ on network television here. Thereís about a 12-hour time difference between the United States and China, so the events take place while most of us are asleep and are broadcast later in the day.
This is not the first time that the Games have been contested halfway around the world. The difference this time is that in the past, the widespread availability of technology allowing instant updates in any variety of outlets aside from the official Olympic broadcast partners did not exist like it does today.
We had the Internet during the Sydney games in 2000, but for most of us - who were on dial-up - it had only a fraction of the speed and capacity that it does today. As the media world has continued to evolve through technology integration and mergers, the ability to distribute results instantly has expanded. Good news for fans, but not so much for the television networks.
As a sports fan, the Olympics offer the chance to watch events that we donít normally see here in the United States. The ratings prove that not many of us watch track and field, swimming, soccer or gymnastics when they are shown during their regular seasons. But we do tune in every four years when they are contested during the Olympics. Maybe thatís because it is competition between nations, with ďamateurĒ athletes, that we do tune in. The difference in time has led many of us to track results through other media, though.
Several years ago, one of the major networks created something of a stir when it broadcast the games as live, even though events had been completed hours before they aired. ďPlausibly liveĒ was the term that network brass developed to describe what amounted to tape-delay. Itís no secret that the premiere events and athletes are saved for prime-time airing because they draw the most viewers for the advertisers, even if their events take place in the early morning. But is that tactic still effective in todayís world?
During its lunchtime coverage on Tuesday, NBC, which is broadcasting the Summer Games, promoted its coverage of swimmer Michael Phelps pursuit of eight gold medals, two of which were on the line Tuesday. It promoted the ďliveĒ races that would be aired that evening. The network has also created a Web site that gives visitors up-to-the-minute results and a number of other features. When I got back into the office after lunch, I was able to learn that Phelps had indeed won the first of his two races already. Since I already know the results, will I turn in tonight to see him do it? Not likely.
We cannot turn back the clock on technology, no matter how much a few of us would like to. Itís also unrealistic to think that the Olympic Games, or other international events, are going to schedule themselves around our television viewing schedule here in the United States. The issues that NBC is facing in trying to cover the games as they happen, and provide the same current information as their competition, is one many media face daily, with events large and small.
It comes down to developing a business model that allows you to get a return on the investment made in covering the Olympics - or any other event. Attracting enough eyeballs to that coverage is the key - whether itís the traditional television set, the Internet or our cell phone. Iím not sure if NBC has the answer - because truth be told Iíve watched little of their coverage and wonít likely visit their site many more times. There are too many other options for getting results that require much less effort from on my part. But Iím just one fan.
Bill Crist is associate publisher and general manager of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Wednesday. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.