Jeff Zucker’s Olympics

Working in television has its highs and lows. In the midst of a successful, kick-ass election night, for example — one of those nights when everything goes right — a kind of euphoria sets in that drug dealers would love to bottle. You say nothing bad about anything or anybody. It’s a feeling of fulfillment that I honestly don’t believe is matched anywhere. We came. We saw. We kicked ass!

However, it’s at these times that hubris rises to the surface, because we actually begin to believe our own hype. I think this is what happened during a mind-boggling, love-fest of an interview that CNBC’s “Squawk Box” did with their boss Jeff Zucker on Friday. Zucker is in Beijing, where he’s getting a decidedly one-sided view of the performance of his network in delivering the Olympics.

In the interview, he made some remarkable statements, including that a “great story” coming out of the Olympics is a demonstration of the power of network television:

IN THE FOUR YEARS SINCE WE LAST HAD THE OLYMPICS IN ATHENS AND EIGHT YEARS AGO SINCE WE WERE IN SYDNEY THE EROSION OF NETWORK TELEVISION HAS BEEN PRONOUNCED AND THERE’S NO WAY OF GETTING AROUND THAT. BUT THE FACT IS THIS EVENT SHOWS THE PIPES WORK AND THAT IF YOU PUT ON GREAT PROGRAMMING THAT PEOPLE WANT TO WATCH, THEN THEY’LL SHOW UP. THAT’S WHAT’S HAPPENED ON NBC. SO THIS REALLY IS A GREAT WATERSHED MOMENT FOR NETWORK TELEVISION. IT’S GREAT FOR NBC BUT IT’S GREAT FOR ALL OF NETWORK TELEVISION. IT DOES SHOW THE PIPES STILL WORK AND IT’S A GREAT MOMENT FOR OUR MULTISCREEN ON AIR, ONLINE, ON THE GO, THE DIGITAL ASPECTS OF THESE GAMES HAS BEEN HUGE.

ONE OF THE GREAT THINGS TO COME OUT OF THESE OLYMPIC GAMES IS THAT THE TREMENDOUS USE OF OUR DIGITAL PROPERTIES ONLINE AND THE GREAT VIEWERSHIP ONLINE AND THE TREMENDOUS NUMBER OF PAGE VIEWS IS REALLY TEACHING US A TREMENDOUS AMOUNT ABOUT WHAT PEOPLE WANT TO CONSUME GREAT CONTENT. AND SO WE’RE GOING TO COME OUT OF THESE OLYMPICS WITH GREAT DIGITAL KNOWLEDGE AND HOPEFULLY WE’LL BE ABLE TO TURN THOSE DIGITAL PENNIES INTO DIGITAL IF NOT DOLLARS DIGITAL 50 CENT PIECES AT SOME POINT. THAT’S ONE OF THE GREAT THINGS TO COME OUT OF THESE OLYMPICS.

Okay, so let’s set aside that ratings have been good and that NBC Universal is turning a profit. If that’s all that mattered, I’d be the first to jump on Zucker’s bandwagon. But all that really proves is that, given the right combination of compelling and exclusive content, television works. That’s certainly no bulletin. Add to that the fact that the games have been delivered in HD, and you have a recipe for success. Mark Cuban does a great job of pointing that out in a blog entry this weekend.

I think the real question of the Olympics isnt “whats the impact of the Internet”, its “whats the impact on viewing of HDTV ?”. If and when NBC releases numbers regarding ratings in HDTV households, I wouldn’t be shocked if the numbers are 75pct higher. People with big, beautiful TVs that they spent a lot of money on, want a reason to watch them. This could go down as the year the Olympics reinvigorated TV.

I disagree with Mark’s final conclusion, because I think it’s a stretch to make the case for reinvigoration based on a spectacular event staged once every four years. And of course, Mark’s predisposed to tout the virtues of HD, because he owns the cable channel HDNet.

To honestly examine these Olympics as a media event, one has to explore the conflict between an interested audience that is increasingly accustomed to getting what they want when and where they want it and the need by the network to control what’s presented in order to maximize profits. This conflict is at the heart of the collapse of mass marketing, and by the time the 2012 Olympics roll around, NBC is going to be forced to do things differently. The games will be in London, so the problem of time-shifting events will be acute.

I think Zucker would be well advised not to overlook or underestimate the angst over this that’s been demonstrated this year. For example, Rafat Ali penned an angry post for PaidContent.org yesterday over NBC’s online handling of the world record 100 meter dash performance by Jamaica’s Usain Bolt.

In what is probably the greatest moment in this Olympics, Usain Bolt of Jamaica won gold 100m dash in 9.69 seconds, a new world record…and he didn’t even have to try after the first half of the race. But you wouldn’t know it if you were here in U.S…well, if you were not online actively searching for a video clip of it. NBCOlympics.com has a lame text story online, and with a lamer Getty Images-supplied photo slideshow. Not that we were expecting anything different from NBC today, but it does add up to the growing frustration with the “bottled-up” (not my phrase…Jeff Zucker used it in a CNBC interview yesterday) coverage by the network.

Rafat went on to demonstrate how video of the event could be found on foreign sites, but not on NBC’s own special website. The transparency of this doesn’t go unnoticed.

Then there’s the controversy over digital media “spoilers” in the form of text alerts that stepped all over the network’s delayed west coast coverage of Michael Phelps winning his 8th gold medal. NBC could have shown it live on the west coast, but chose not to, because again, profit is the operating fundamental of the network’s coverage.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the coverage I’ve seen, although I’ll admit I haven’t watched all that much. But I do think that Mr. Zucker needs to carefully consider the real world of 21st Century media before he assumes that 2012 will be the same as it is in 2008. Live and uncut is what people want from an event like this, but as we’ve seen, that runs counter to the pink cloud that Zucker is currently riding.

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