Live Sports Needs Tension

As the Olympics come to a close, it’s time to assess ratings. The numbers aren’t terrible, but they’re not good either and apparently it’s all the fault of [Millenials]( That headline is an obvious troll, but I’ll bite because I think that NBC’s coverage during this Olympiad really has highlighted Network Television’s complete and utter failure to understand how it fits into the modern media landscape.

If you want people to tune in to your television program, you have to provide them something that they can’t get from just viewing videos of each event’s decisive moments on the NBC website. You should take the extra time you have to build a narrative around the event. Talk about inter-competitor dynamics, back stories, let the sport follow some sort of narrative arch. NBC’s broadcast attempted this to some extent, but if you tuned in (as I did nearly every night for the past couple weeks) it was impossible to feel as if you were just being fed a Youtube playlist entitled “Olympic Stuff That Happened Today”.

To the extent that live sports television is popular, it’s because the build up and release of tension is entertaining. This tension exists because we’ve invested time in the event’s outcome and that investment of time allows us to empathize with the players who no doubt have invested much more time themselves. Nothing tops the excitement of watching penalty kicks in soccer, but if you don’t watch the match that took place beforehand the excitement is gone.

Of course, not all events cater to this buildup of tension as well as soccer does. The 100m dash is over in 10s, a gymnastics floor routine is only a couple of minutes. But NBC was actively exacerbating these problems. During the Women’s Gymnastics Team event, they chose to break the competition up into two blocks that aired hours apart from each other. By the time the coverage was brought back to gymnastics, any tension that was built had been completely erased. We had to be reminded what the state of the competition was, who the players were and who was even winning all over again. They did this again for the All Around event.

NBC’s excessive (and nigh exclusive save for Usain Bolt) focus on American athletes also contributed to their inability to build any sort of tension or narrative around the events. After the first couple of days it became very clear that if the event was on television, it was because an American was about to medal. Who were the gymnasts that Simone Biles and company were competing against? What about Michael Phelps’ opponents? There was the one Russian swimmer we had our two minutes hate of while she faced off against Lilly King, but that was about it. In their attempt to cram as many events in as possible, NBC removed all sense of competition by completely erasing the other competitors.

They even ignored better stories. Did you know that tennis player Monica Puig, who had never gotten past the fourth round of a Grand Slam tournament, won the first-ever gold medal for her home country of Puerto Rico? If you did it wasn’t because of NBC’s television coverage. Even when it was an American winning, if she wasn’t a super star in a popular sport the best NBC could muster was a 30s mention of the happening. As was the case when Michelle Carter won the USA’s first women’s shot put medal in 50 years.

NBC (and other owners of exclusive rights to sporting events) need to realize they can’t out Youtube Youtube. If the modern media consumer wants to watch quick clips of what happened and then move on with their lives, they’re going to do so by watching online. Attempting to cater to this sort of viewer with television broadcast is a fool’s errand. We know from the popularity of NFL, MLB, NBA and even Nascar that there absolutely are viewers out there who want to sit down and be immersed in the boring and gritty details of competition. These viewers know that the time spent watching a competition develop over the course of hours is time well spent. NBC tried to cater to the quick-clip crowd instead of the immersion crowd and ended up satisfying neither.

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