NEW YORK - Olympics fans hoping that a Games in the Americas would persuade NBC to finally broadcast the Opening Ceremony live have been left disappointed again.
Even though Rio de Janeiro's time zone is just one hour ahead of the East Coast of the United States, the much-watched spectacle will be televised and streamed online on a delayed basis starting at 8 p.m. Eastern. The event will actually start at 7 p.m. Eastern, which is 8 p.m. in Rio.
To make matters worse, broadcasts in western regions will have staggered start times. Coverage in the Mountain time zone starts at 7 p.m. local (9 p.m. Eastern), and coverage in the Pacific time zone starts at 8 p.m. local (11 p.m. Eastern). Coverage in the Central time zone starts at 7 p.m. local, the same hour as the Eastern time broadcast window.
NBC hasn't aired an Opening Ceremony live since the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, and hasn't aired a summer Opening Ceremony live since 1996 in Atlanta. Fans have complained endlessly since then, and the growth of social media has made recent years' complaints even louder.
Executives from the network were peppered with questions about the decision at an Olympics preview press event NBC held Monday afternoon at the network's Rockefeller Center headquarters. They were all well-prepared for the onslaught.
Indeed, NBC's own people brought the subject up first. During the formal presentation part of the event, Michele Tafoya - the Sunday Night Football sideline reporter who will report on swimming events in Rio - put the question directly to NBC Sports Group chairman Mark Lazarus on stage.
"A lot of people want to know, are you going to stream live the opening ceremony?" Tafoya asked.
"Who's been asking that?" Lazarus feigned.
"Uh, my kids," Tafoya replied.
Well, Tafoya's kids are going to be disappointed when they hear the news.
Here's what Lazarus and his fellow NBC executives had to say about what went into the decision.
Mark Lazarus, NBC Sports Group chairman
We are not going to stream the Opening Ceremonies live. Those will be curated and will air one hour after they occur, as will take place with us on NBC broadcast network as well. We think it's important to give the context to the show. These Opening Ceremonies will be a celebration of Brazilian culture, of Rio, of the pageantry, of the excitement, of the flair that this beautiful nation has. We think it's important that we're able to put that in context for the viewer so that it's not just a flash of color. So we will air that on a one-hour delay…
They will both [television and online] be on a simultaneous hour delay. That's consistent with what we did in London [at the 2012 Summer Olympics] and what we did in Sochi [at the 2014 Winter Olympics]…
The question, I would say, is: If we were to air it live, and we were going to put commercials in the Games - because we are a public company and have duties to our shareholders - which parts would they like us to cut out?
[I responded that the public would, for better or worse, probably suggest cutting out some countries they didn't know anything about.]
Well, that's not fair to those countries, and those people have relatives or people here. It's also not just about the Parade of Nations. There's pageantry and art and other things in it. By doing a short tape-delay of one hour, it allows us to put it in a time period when more people are home to watch, because it is a Friday night and they get out of their commute or home from wherever they are. And it allows us to curate it with the narrative and storytelling of our announcers to explain what's going on. And it allows us to put in commercials without cutting out large chunks of the show…
It's hard to put commercials in a live show and not miss something. Then the question would be: Well, why do you have to ruin it with commercials? We are a for-profit organization, and we spend a lot of money to put on the Olympics, and I think [we have] the right - and duty to our shareholders - to make some revenue from that. What we've seen is when we delayed the London Games [ceremony] by five hours and the Sochi ceremonies by nine hours, people were still excited to see them. I'm hopeful that will be the case here.
Jim Bell, NBC Olympics executive producer (who made the official decision to not broadcast the event live)
First of all, it's not a sports competition, it's a ceremony that requires deep levels of understanding all the various camera angles and meanings for the host country, and our commentary laid over it. So our announcers, when the Parade of Nations comes in, [are] talking about the athletes. Plus, again, we talked about prime time being important. It is still when most people can watch. I can't speak for anybody here, but I think that for most people, it's fair to say that after 8 o'clock is a time when most people can watch TV. Six, seven are okay, but still a little bit on the early side...
I don't think any decisions come without risk of heat. Inevitably, there are going to be people who are going to want something, and people who are going to want something else. You have to make decisions that you think are best for your audience, and for the advertisers, and for your business. This one was not difficult.
Gary Zenkel, NBC Olympics president
It's generally one of - if not our highest rated night. So I don't think the audience is that troubled by it not being live. Remember, it's not a sports event. There isn't a result. It's a show, and we think we're serving the audience better by offering that show with a little bit of time to produce it, and when they [viewers] are available. Remember, the Opening Ceremony starts at 7 o'clock east coast time. More people are around to watch later. So why is it not seen as us actually serving the audience? Missing out? Why? They'll see it. It's coming.
John Miller, NBC Olympics chief marketing officer
The Opening Ceremonies, to a large degree, are sort of in two parts. There's a show, and when you see the show and how the show is put together, you want to make sure it's a good show. Then the rest of it is sort of the countries walking in, and the flag coming in, and the torches and the speeches. But when the torch gets lit, is it essential to see that live, or is it essential to see that in context?…
The entire west coast [group of viewers] that watch on broadcast… prime time begins at 8 o'clock, not 5 o'clock [Pacific Time, which is 8 p.m. Eastern, when the online stream will start]. Historically, the west coast has always been 20 percent higher [in terms of viewership] than the east coast. People who have wanted to see things live, they say, "Well, how is that possible? People already know what it is!" In the case of the Olympics, it's not about the result, it's about the journey.
The people who watch the Olympics are not particularly sports fans. More women watch the Games than men, and for the women, they're less interested in the result and more interested in the journey. It's sort of like the ultimate reality show and mini-series wrapped into one. And to tell the truth, it has been the complaint of a few sports writers. It has not been the complaint of the vast viewing public.
[Aside: You might disagree with that. I might disagree with that. NBC has said it for years, and has long claimed to have stacks of market research to prove it.]
Rick Cordella, senior vice president and general manager of NBC Sports Digital
We get it. We need context around it. You see sometimes in these host feed videos that there's not that American point of view, there's not this understanding that you may know who this Russian athlete is or this other athlete from a different country. So you need the context. I understand that…
We evaluate after each Olympics and make different decisions. I think in London, streaming it for the first time was a big move that paid off. So, after each Olympics, we'll sit down and say what went well and what didn't, and adjust…
These are good questions to ask and things we sort, I think, of fight ourselves with sometimes. At the end of the day, we come up with a conclusion and say this is what's best for NBC, what's best for the user and that's how we roll.
This story has been corrected. A quote that was originally attributed to Jim Bell was actually said by John Miller.