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Tape-delay shouldn’t be the biggest criticism of NBC’s Olympics coverage

Like an innocent bystander at a Kardashian wedding, I’ve been watching the ire and bombast unfold over NBC’s coverage of the London Olympics with a bewildered, yet-familiar feeling horror – seeing a tidal wave of derision wash over the proceedings in a predictable exercise.

To be sure, there are some gaffes for which there is no forgiveness – from inflicting extended interviews with Ryan Seacrest on the world’s most accomplished athletes to blowing the results of U.S. swimmer Missy Franklin’s gold medal-winning performance in a “Today” show ad before the race aired on NBC.

And the less said about the network airing an advertisement featuring a monkey working gymnast rings just after a historic win by African American gymnast Gabby Douglas – the bit was an unfortunate promo for an unfortunate sitcom called “Animal Practice” – the better.

Still, it seems to me that much of the complaining about NBC’s massive Olympics effort – using online video, station broadcasts and cable channels to display most every single moment of competition at the Summer Games – is about a historic misunderstanding.

I think, in this era of ever-shifting, on-demand media, people are asking certain outlets to do what they are not designed to do. Especially when it comes to TV broadcasts in prime time.

The big complaint, is that major events such as the Olympics opening ceremonies, Franklin’s win and sprinter Usain Bolt’s amazing victory Sunday in the 100-meter race are not shown live on NBC’s air, held back instead for broadcast in prime time.

That means fans of some sports are “spoiled” by hearing of race results before they are aired on television. It also means enduring odd gymnastics by news reporters on other platforms, trying to report results from a country already six hours ahead of the US East Coast, time zone-wise.

(I’m with the “The Daily Show,” which gave major props to NBC anchor Brian Williams, who cautioned viewers to look away from the TV screen while it broadcast a graphic of results not yet revealed on television; of course, blind Olympics fans were left out by this solution, too.)

But here’s the reality: Broadcast TV is the big stage of media; the place where we all gather at the end of hectic workdays to watch the best contests the Olympics can offer.

That’s where huge numbers of casual fans will gather to see the results in sports they never knew existed, along with performances of athletes who have been seemingly ubiquitous on NBC’s air (please, NBC, no more Michael Phelps interviews unless he stops a burglary with one of his medals, or something).

In other words, it is both showcase and digest – the easiest platform for the biggest crowd. It’s also the way NBC hopes to break even after paying more than $1.2 billion for broadcast rights to this year’s games.

Expecting NBC to broadcast the most popular Olympic events when they happen instead of when they might be viewed most, is like expecting a book to shift its table of contents to last page or a blog to feature the depth of a 700-page novel.

If you want to see those events when they happen, you have to go to the media platform where that is possible: online. Despite some streaming problems – especially during Bolt’s super-popular performance – I’ve found NBC’s smartphone apps and websites to be an effective alternative for checking out sports I absolutely have to see live. Which, to be honest, aren’t many.

Yes, you also have to have cable or satellite TV service to use these features, but that encompasses about 90 percent of those who watch television. Thanks to the way TV works these days, you have to ante up to take advantage of all the streaming and smartphone options available – even if that means hooking up cable for a few weeks just to catch the Olympics.

Still, those who live by cyberspace can die by the same weapon. And fans’ increasing use of online platforms also means they have access to an instant forum for all their complaints the second a web feed goes bad or a questionable call is made on what gets stuck on tape delay.

Today’s social media-enhanced media culture has put every NBC’s every Olympics mistake on a billboard stretching across the globe. Whether its eliminating a tribute to London terrorism victims from the opening ceremonies, knocking critic Guy Adams briefly off Twitter, or offering commentary so tepid movie star Sam Jackson’s Twitter feed was more entertaining, the network’s every stumble has become new fodder for legions who love to loathe NBC.

Small wonder a web producer for NBC’s Spokane, Wash. affiliate KHQ called out the “whiners” complaining about spoilers in a blog post. In a super-connected world, the only way you’re not going to be spoiled by the result of an Olympic contest is to disconnect. And who has time for that?

But because our media world is in transition, some folks haven’t yet grown used to the idea that TV is no longer the place to see instant results to a sprawling, high-cost sporting event. Economics and the logistics of time delay have shifted that function online.

 Given that we now live in a river of information, even grousing about spoilers seems overly precious.

Does hearing that Bolt won the 100-meter race really diminish the thrill of seeing him pull it off, even hours later? Is it really a calamity to learn about Phelps’ historic medal win when it happens, and savor the images later during a well-produced prime time broadcast?

Especially when you can watch it happen live online if you choose?

I say Olympics critics should focus their ire on subjects that deserve it – with Seacrest, NBC’s fall TV series advertisements and people complaining about Douglas’ hair at the top of my list.

Because once you accept how each media outlet works and turns a profit, deciding how you want to consume the Olympics is easy as choosing between your laptop and your living room couch – assuming you’re not jacked into both of them continuously, already.

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the Tampa Bay (Fla.) Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. He also provides regular commentary for National Public Radio and has been published by the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed.

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