Ty Burr
September 20, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

NBC’s taped Olympics coverage generates weak ratings

Despite what ReplayTV executives might have you think, some things are simply meant to be experienced live. The ball dropping on Times Square. The announcement of the winner for the Best Picture Academy Award. And Australia’s Ian Thorpe coming from behind to take the 4 x 100 meter men’s swimming relay from the USA’s Gary Hall Jr. Australians got to see it live and local, of course — as well they should have — but a great sports moment is a great sports moment no matter whose country wins, and catching the event 15 hours later on NBC was like sampling a tin of caviar that’s been left out in the sun for a day.

Why is the Peacock network so intent on time shifting the Olympics? They’ve devoted all three of their broadcast outlets to the Games, with NBC going for the highlights, MSNBC offering complete events, and CNBC focusing on, um, boxing. But the ”day late, dollar short” feel of the delayed airings is underscored by the way the Internet lets armchair jocks access actual results as soon as they’re in. You’ll find all the winners and statistics at official sites maintained by NBC and the International Olympic Committee plus plenty of solid detail at news sites like the New York Times Online. Still, because NBC controls all the televised content, nowhere online can you find actual VIDEO (or even audio) of the events.

In other words, for the duration of the Olympics, the Web has been neutered. Oh, there are pictures galore, but if you’re looking to plug into the galvanizing ”Matrix”-like athleticism of the Chinese men’s gymnastics team as they do their thing in real time, you’re out of luck. And why? So NBC can make good to their advertisers by getting it all in prime time and packaging it as inspirational entertainment, complete with those horrifically gloopy bio features (even those have been kept off the Web, for which we should perhaps send a mass thank you e-mail to Dick Ebersol).

The results of this willful stonewalling? Ratings are down. This past Sunday — the second evening of actual event coverage, with swimming and women’s gymnastics on display — NBC pulled in a 14.9 rating/24 share, the lowest numbers for Olympic coverage in that time slot since 1980. Serves ’em right, I say: If the network isn’t going to air the competitions live on one of its cable outlets — which, since it would undermine the all important prime time extravaganza on the tottering broadcast network, would be a patently insane move from a commercial standpoint — you’d think someone over there would figure out that putting live video feeds out over the Web would probably goose word of mouth and INCREASE ratings for the delayed telecasts. After all, CD sales are up in spite of (or dare we say because of) Napster. Silly me, that’s asking media executives to take the long view, when they’d much rather have the television audience do that.

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