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Why the Winter Games Get a Chilly Reception


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http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/11/sports/olympics/11longman.html?ref=olympics

February 11, 2010

INSIDE THE RINGS

Why the Winter Games Get a Chilly Reception

By JERÉ LONGMAN

VANCOUVER, British Columbia

Pssst.

Have you heard?

The Winter Olympics start Friday.

“There used to be such a huge buzz,” Uschi Keszler, who competed in the 1964 Winter Games for West Germany and coached figure skaters in six subsequent Olympics, said last week at a rink in suburban Philadelphia. “Where is the buzz?”

I have been struck by how many acquaintances had no idea until recently that this was an Olympic year. The 2008 Beijing Games arrived with a siren’s blare of anticipation; the Vancouver Games are being delivered like a note passed secretly around the classroom.

It raises the question: have the Winter Games outlived their usefulness, given the altered sports calendar, changing viewing habits and the fall of the Berlin Wall?

Has ski jumping jumped the shark?

In retrospect, it was a mistake to separate the Winter Olympics from the Summer Olympics, beginning in 1994. When they both occurred in the same calendar year, “it was like a year of sport every four years,” said Keszler, who coached the Olympic medalists Brian Orser and Elvis Stojko.

The change was made so the Winter Games could breathe their own air, and so organizers could more easily raise corporate sponsorship money. It seemed a rational financial decision, but the outcome robbed the Olympics of perhaps their most attractive quality — novelty.

Now that a Winter or Summer Games arrives every two years, their freshness and feeling of uniqueness have gone the way of amateurism and compulsory school figures.

“I understand the logic behind it,” said Robert Thompson, the founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. Yet, he added, “splitting those two has taken away the sort of monumental special nature of the whole thing.”

The Vancouver Games face an additional burden, starting five days after the Super Bowl, risking that a football hangover could resist the Bloody Mary curative of the Olympics.

“You barely have time to digest the high-sodium, high-cholesterol snacks from the Super Bowl feast, and here comes the opening ceremony,” Thompson said. “When two rituals fall close together, one always suffers. Christmas and New Year’s are a week apart. The first of those got the better end of the deal.”

In moving host cities to lower-lying urban areas like Turin, Italy, and now Vancouver, the International Olympic Committee risks holding a Winter Olympics with few signs of winter.

A temperate climate in Vancouver has already forced snow to be trucked in like spectators to freestyle skiing and snowboarding sites. Temperatures have reached the 50s in downtown Vancouver in recent days. Organizers may be forced to rename these the Early Spring Olympics. At least I.O.C. delegates should get to play their favorite sport — golf.

In fairness to the I.O.C. and to NBC, technology made the diminishment of the Winter Games inevitable. Once, any host network had a captive television audience for two weeks. Now that audience has been atomized by cable, satellite and Internet viewing habits. Consumers have grown impatient for results in real time, not necessarily prime time.

The Winter Olympics suffer more than the Summer Olympics because their main audience is more curious about than devoted to daring, unfamiliar activities like snowboard cross and luge. NBC is expected to lose $200 million to $250 million on the Vancouver Games.

Four years ago, the Turin Olympics on some nights lost in the ratings medal count to “American Idol” and “Desperate Housewives.” A Winter Games in North America will allow NBC to broadcast live events in prime time; on the other hand, the two most important gold medals in Vancouver — women’s figure skating and men’s hockey — are not expected to be placed around the necks of athletes from the United States.

Still, for a couple of weeks, the snowboarder Shaun White and the skier Lindsey Vonn will give NBC cover from the late-night fiasco that was Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien — a knee-whacking that would make Tonya Harding proud. With the lift in ratings, the fourth-place network can win prime time, and women are certain to watch the Games in large numbers.

“It’s not as though we’ve turned our backs completely,” Thompson said. “I don’t think we’ve suddenly found the Winter Olympics less interesting or relevant. The biggest thing is, there’s so much other stuff to attract our attention. It’s a wonder they’re still doing as well as they are.”

To its credit, the I.O.C. has sought a younger, hipper audience by adding sports like snowboarding and freestyle skiing. Yet these events seem tamer — or lamer — versions of the big-air wonder found in the Winter X Games on ESPN. Interviewing White last week, David Letterman lamented, “This is what the Olympics need more of.”

It was a convenient shot at NBC, his former employer, but Letterman had a point. The halfpipe seems only half-radical beneath the Olympic rings, more permissible than renegade.

“I still think the Olympics holds a special place for me,” said Casey Puckett, a former Olympic Alpine skier who is scheduled to compete for the United States in ski cross in Vancouver. “ESPN has a lot of freedom to do what they want. It is an experimental ground to try new things to get ratings and see what people are interested in. The Olympics is more traditional and set in its ways.”

Once, cold war tensions gave us galvanizing moments like the 1980 Miracle on Ice, but that narrative crumbled with the Berlin Wall two decades ago. The United States’ current political adversaries — Iran and North Korea — are not Olympic powers. Other threatening enemies are stateless, with no Taliban bobsledders or Qaeda biathletes to spur our nationalistic fervor.

So how to raise sagging interest?

Start by switching basketball to the Winter Olympics.

Who wouldn’t love to see a triple Shaxel?

Matt Higgins contributed reporting.

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It's a bit of an overblown argument. I think they're making a bit too much of the new split cycle between Winter and Summer games. Still, some good points about the trend towards more youth-oriented sport.

And actually, moving some of the indoor sports from the summer games to the winter gams is a suggestion I've heard before, and one I wouldn't be adverse to. It could help broaden the appeal (and medal mix) of the WOGs, while giving some more flexibility and more easily managed scale to the summer.

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And actually, moving some of the indoor sports from the summer games to the winter gams is a suggestion I've heard before, and one I wouldn't be adverse to. It could help broaden the appeal (and medal mix) of the WOGs, while giving some more flexibility and more easily managed scale to the summer.

Wouldn't that blur the line between the Summer Games and Winter Games? At least now, even though there is an Olympic Games every two years, you still get only one Summer and one Winter every four years. If they did as you suggest, it's edges closer to just one non-special Games every two years, further eroding the specialness of the games.

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Wouldn't that blur the line between the Summer Games and Winter Games? At least now, even though there is an Olympic Games every two years, you still get only one Summer and one Winter every four years. If they did as you suggest, it's edges closer to just one non-special Games every two years, further eroding the specialness of the games.

Well, I wouldn't want a wholesale movement of sports from summer to winter either. But a few - one or two - wouldn't hurt.

I didn't realise the NBA was a summer event, but i kinda agree with Dave, it has more of a summer vibe to me as well. Nevertheless, an indoor team sport like basketball or handball wouldn't feel too astray to me. Maybe one of the 'stockier' sports, wrestling, or weightlifting, could work a switch too.

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I personally think things are fine just the way they are. I mean, yeah, I remember quite well when you only had one Olympic year every four years, and it was really special, realizing, "Hey! This is an Olympic year!" with the excitement starting in the Winter until the Big Show, the Big Kahuna, the Summer Games several months later. But then there was was that long, long four year wait till it happened again. At least now we have the Winter Games to bring us Olympic anticipation and excitement to tide us over until the next Big Main Event, the traditional Summer Games.

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I personally think things are fine just the way they are. I mean, yeah, I remember quite well when you only had one Olympic year every four years, and it was really special, realizing, "Hey! This is an Olympic year!" with the excitement starting in the Winter until the Big Show, the Big Kahuna, the Summer Games several months later. But then there was was that long, long four year wait till it happened again. At least now we have the Winter Games to bring us Olympic anticipation and excitement to tide us over until the next Big Main Event, the traditional Summer Games.

You know, mulling it over now, i do agre that at least restricting the WOGs to ice and snow sports gives it a specialist cachet of its own, while not diminishing the Summer games. I guess I waver on the issue. Anyway, i think the IOC would be too consevative to make such a move, so it's academic anyway.

Slightly less academic, is the problems the Olympics - and NBC (or any other future US host broadcasters) face in the internet and online broadcast age. Just came across an interesting Wall Street Journal piece:

Tape-Delayed Olympic Contests Annoy the Instant-Update World

By SAM SCHECHNER and AMY CHOZICK

In the age of Twitter feeds and instant updates, the Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver is facing down an old foe: the tape delay.

NBC says it will have fewer delayed events than in previous Olympics because Vancouver is in North America. But some major skiing events, like downhill and slalom, will be recorded earlier in the day and shown on the network in the evening.

The network plans to carry all of figure skating, the majority of speed skating and more than half of the freestyle skiing events live, during prime time—except for West Coast viewers. West Coast audiences will have to wait and get every major prime-time and daytime event that airs on NBC with a time delay.

Tape delay is a product of a dilemma facing NBC Universal, whose parent General Electric Co. says it expects to lose about $250 million on the Winter Olympics. It must maximize its audience in the evenings on NBC, without alienating it.

Time differences have always presented problems for Olympics broadcasters since many viewers tune out if they already know the results. But the proliferation of social-networking Web sites like Twitter and real-time updates from a constant stream of Web sites means more viewers will know who landed the gold medal before they'll get the chance to watch a sport.

NBC Universal plans to air live events during the day and evening on its cable outlets, including USA, CNBC and MSNBC, as well as at NBCOlympics.com.

NBC also plans to post scores immediately on its Olympics Web site to preempt viewers from venturing elsewhere for instant updates. But even that threatens to cannibalize viewership, especially if non-Americans win the medals, industry analysts say.

"People want results in real time," says Sam Sussman, director of sports activation at Starcom Worldwide, a media buying unit of Publicis Groupe. "Tape delay will likely have an impact on ratings," he added.

"The way information travels these days, finding out the results in advance is a total buzz kill," said Steven Loi, a 26-year-old entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. "I'll be pretty nonchalant about watching the Games if they're delayed. I get a lot of my updates online."

The network has people working around the clock to make sure footage exclusive to NBC does not pop up on YouTube or competing Olympics-related Web sites. "We protect our investment," an NBC spokesman said.

Many West Coast fans were livid when NBC delayed its West Coast feeds in 2008 for Beijing's Summer Games. NBC figures that airing the games on a delay will attract more viewers than if they aired when no one is home.

Alan Wurtzel, head of research at NBC Universal, says internal research shows that viewers would rather watch the Olympics on a time delay than have them air at an inconvenient hour. He says the "vast majority" of the Olympics will be aired live in prime time. Nielsen Co. says over three quarters of U.S. viewers live in the East Coast and Central time zones.

Plus, the proliferation of digital recording devices that has led to wide-spread "time shifting" hasn't yet reached the Olympics and other large-scale televised events, says Lisa Quan, director of audience analysis at Interpublic Group's media agency Magna. "It's still this shared experience that you know people are going to be talking about the next day."

In Canada, broadcast partners CTV Inc. and Rogers Media Inc. say all Vancouver contests will air live on TV or online, with no tape-delayed telecasts. Some TV viewers in cities near the Canadian border receive Canadian TV channels, and therefore may have an alternative to any delayed airings on NBC.

NBC also will offer 400 hours of live online streaming to people who show they subscribe to a participating cable operator. None of those events will then air in totality on a prime-time broadcast, though highlights may run in delay. The Web site is "designed to complement the prime-time broadcast," an NBC spokesman says.

The last time a winter games was in North America, NBC saw its ratings climb. The 2002 games in Salt Lake City attracted 19.2% of U.S. households to NBC's prime-time telecasts, a 17% increase over the disappointing 1998 games in Nagano, Japan, according to Nielsen Co.

NBC has acknowledged the power of live events. Last month, it shifted to airing the Golden Globe Awards live across the U.S., a factor that may have given the show a boost— although the show aired on a Sunday when people on the West Coast were home to watch. Viewership was up 14% over 2009, Nielsen says.

Executive producer David Neal says the network plans to draw viewers to delayed broadcasts by airing pre-produced biographies and other extras that will provide added entertainment even if an audience knows the final results. "If they care about an athlete's story, they'll take time to understand and watch the sport," Mr. Neal says.

Figure skating, one of the most popular Winter Olympic sports, will face off against the prime-time hit series "American Idol," also aired on delay to the West Coast. That could dig into viewership. "Torino showed that the Winter Olympics can be pretty vulnerable to strong reality programming when the Olympics are on tape," Dick Ebersol, an NBC Sports and Olympics chairman and an executive producer of the Vancouver Olympics coverage, recently told reporters.

Andy Donchin, director of media investments at Aegis Group PLC's Carat said a couple of early wins by U.S. athletes would help. "I want the eyeballs, and I think there's a potential that NBC could do well because a bigger percentage of the big events are going to be live," he added.

WSJ

A few points I'd like to air.

I just strikes me as sooooooo bizarre, with a games in their own time-zone, NBC can even think of tape delaying and delaying across the US domestic time zones. I mean to say, how weird is it, that in the Pacific Coast States, in the exact time zone as the actual games, viewers from California to Washington, will watch the while thing delayed.

Okay, I know the whole economic models of trying to maximise their prime times across the country, but it really is getting more and more futile to try to do this in the internet age.

Personally, from the point of view of a spectator from one of the vast majority of countries around the world that broadcast the Olympics overwhelmingly live, despite the time or the hour, one of the great appeals of the Olympics is the camaraderie of crowding with workmates around the office TV to watch a highly anticipated final during work time, and discussing it around the lunch room or water cooler or across desks. Or especially getting up in the dead of night to especially watch and event you're panting on, and then be able to talk about with your friends the next day. It makes it an event, rather than just the latest two-week miniseries up against your other favourite shows in prime time.

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I just strikes me as sooooooo bizarre, with a games in their own time-zone, NBC can even think of tape delaying and delaying across the US domestic time zones. I mean to say, how weird is it, that in the Pacific Coast States, in the exact time zone as the actual games, viewers from California to Washington, will watch the while thing delayed.

Yes, this is SOOOO Stupid and I hate it. I live in the Eastern Time Zone so I'll see it live, but my folks in California on the other hand....

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Oh dear...so certain media types in the US are a little worried that the Winter Olympics are 'losing their relevance'. Hate to break it you NBC and various dullards the Winter Olympics are NOT for the US's benefit. Nor is it about trying to assimilate the X Game generation.

Now before anyone says 'what about the importance of NBC's TV revenue' I agree that for any Olympic Games to be a viable entity financially (and for that matter the IOC as well) American TV revenues have to play a big role. However let's not discount the Europeans and their involvement in the winter games (including their own media) as well as evolving markets in Asia (South Korea and China). Even Australia has become more engaged with the winter Olympics in recent years.

Yes, there is an issue relating to running an Olympics in the same year as a World Cup, and to a lesser extent the Commonwealth Games. However it's up to the local organisers, the IOC and the American media industry to find that balance of attention if its such a concern for the septics. As far as one can see from downunder VANOC are fairing reasonably well with organisation, the IOC has been very quiet (unlike previous scandal-ridden years) so wherein does the problem lie? NBC has to be prime culprit.

Let's not forget that NBC have been lurching from stuff up to stuff up as their programming has been belted for going on the cheap with Leno and O'Brien. In trying to save production bucks NBC has probably forgotten how to sell its best productions. Typical of that is this tape delayed BS...local broadcasters in Australia have been doing that too on free to air and the clamour to have cable pull up the slack has been pretty loud.

Ultimately every Olympic Games will have a different appeal to differing countries, as interpreted by the local media and consumed by the general population. The Winter Games are a more unique event with arguably less popular sports however the disconnect isn't necessarily the fault of the organisers or the sports themselves, but who decides what to show. And in the US the blinkered, NBC approach has possibly undermined the 2010 games' popularity.

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So "30 Rock" is not so far-fetched after all. Loving that show!

30 Rock is the best comedy on television, IMO. The SNL years when Tina Fey was head writer were really great, and she's drawing on that experience for 30 Rock.

As for NBC, Nagano was a ratings disappointment for CBS as well.

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