When friends in China posted WeChat photos and video clips of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games opening ceremony on Friday evening, those living in the United States and tuning to NBC were still eagerly waiting.
I was one of the people waiting, but I was also on the phone for a while with a friend in Beijing. As he marveled at the moment fashion model Gisele Bundchen made her catwalk across Maracana Stadium, I literally said, “We are not there yet.”
NBC, the only US broadcaster of the event, had chosen to use a time delay in the so-called “live” broadcast so the opening ceremony could air during prime time on both the east and west coast. That meant the East Coast was delayed for one hour while the West Coast was delayed for four hours – a broadcast that is questionably “live”.
NBC’s excuse, as reported by the US news media – that its team needed time to edit the ceremony and put it into context for viewers in the US – clearly does not hold water, because so many countries, including China, aired the event live, without any delays.
NBC’s statement that “it’s not a sports competition” and “primetime is still when the most people are available to watch” showed a deep disconnect between the station and viewers’ expectations.
The delay seemed to be only half of the problem. The frequent interruptions for commercials angered many watching on NBC. One of my WeChat friends in Washington, a Chinese national, was the first to comment: “The splendid Olympic opening ceremony was inserted into a bombardment of commercials.”
Another Chinese friend, also in Washington, who was watching the live broadcast on China Central Television (CCTV), posted on WeChat, “I am thrilled with the People’s Republic of China. Thanks to CCTV, I don’t have to watch a delayed broadcast like those watching NBC.”
“It was an evening of TV commercials,” sighed another Washington-based Chinese on WeChat about the NBC broadcast.
Such criticism of NBC was also seen in a BBC report and many other news reports that followed.
“Why is the rest of the world watching the opening ceremony live while I’m reading updates on Twitter, I’ll just stream it, noncommercial,” Lilit Gasparyan tweeted, according to the BBC report.
“Just staggeringly irritating that – 20 years after the birth of the web – NBC still shows the Olympics with a time delay,” tweeted Gerard Baker.
There is little doubt to many viewers that NBC made airing commercials the top priority of the night. The BBC report said NBC executives had lobbied the International Olympic Committee unsuccessfully to have the athletes parade in English-language alphabetical order rather than Portuguese. It quoted a Bloomberg report saying the reason for this was that “United States” would enter right toward the end of the line, thus giving US TV viewers an incentive to keep patching to the very end.
Expectations for the Rio opening ceremony were already low given the news stories about the shortage of funds for the event, the political turmoil in Brazil and the menace of the Zika virus, but Brazil surprised many by presenting an awesome show with just a fraction of the budget spent on the Beijing and London Olympics.
Most Chinese believe the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony is unrivaled, but many have heaped praise on Rio’s opening ceremony.
Writing on the Phoenix TV website, Zhang Feng criticized the news media for the negative reporting in the days leading up to the Rio games. He described the Rio opening ceremony as probably the best in recent years.
“It was so brilliant, even if you just took a quick look,” he wrote, adding that the Olympic torch lighting and the flame was full of imagination and joy.
Comments on his article were divided. While some praised the Rio ceremony for the “green” concept, others said it still didn’t compare to the one in Beijing.
In the US, the “almost live” broadcast earned NBC a 16.5 percent rating among households, compared with 23 percent for the London Games, 18.8 percent for the Beijing Games and 14.4 percent for the Athens Games of 2004.
This echoes a Gallup poll released on Aug 2 that shows Americans’ interest in watching the Olympics has hit a new low. Only 48 percent of Americans say they plan to watch a “great deal” or “fair amount” of the 2016 Summer Olympics, a sharp drop from the 59 percent in 2012 and easily the lowest percentage planning to watch compared with the past four Summer Games, according to the poll.
Meanwhile, 30 percent say they plan to watch “not much” of the Olympics and 21 percent say “none at all” – the highest percentage saying that since Gallup began asking the question in 2000.
Probably a surprise to many, the survey also showed that less than half (46 percent) of Americans polled knew the Olympics were being held in Rio.
Contact the writer at [email protected]