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NBC's brass addresses Olympic criticisms and gold medal ratings

LONDON -- The negative headlines have come faster than Usain Bolt, from The Financial Times (NBC OLYMPICS COVERAGE DRAWS FIRE) to the Los Angeles Times (OLYMPIC FANS UNHAPPY WITH NBC FIND A WAY TO ACCESS BBC) to the New York Post (CUT-AWAYS RUIN NBC'S COVERAGE). Even the British have weighed in. The Daily Telegraph declared NBC's coverage "a damning indictment of an outdated monopoly" while The Guardian cheekily noted NBC was producing "the last great buggy-whip Olympics."

Those inside NBC's 75,000-square-foot compound at the International Broadcasting Center, where the network's nearly 2,800 employees work in cramped offices on hallways named after iconic British streets such as Savile Row and Abbey Road, are well aware of the endless chatter about the television coverage and the frustrations many Americans have with NBC's time-shifting strategy to protect its primetime show. But there is work to be done with a final weekend ahead and the staff is committed to the cause, including many in their 20s working 18-hour days.

NBC's promise to stream all the sports live from the London Games did not prevent criticism of its coverage. In fact, quite the opposite happened. As the New York Times wrote, Twitter has turned into a "fiery digital soapbox against NBC," with resentments spilling out in 140-character bursts over tape delays and problems viewing the live streams. It also produced a now-famous (or infamous) hashtag -- #NBCFail. Thanks to social media, everyone can be Roger Ebert, even if few can write like him. It is also true that those who have enjoyed NBC's coverage -- and there are millions and millions -- are unlikely to hop on Twitter simply to give the coverage props.

The network has also found itself compared to the host country broadcaster. The BBC has performed well under a huge spotlight; the 24 live online feeds have received rave reviews from critics and consumers. But the BBC is by no means perfect. The level of on-air cheerleading for British athletes would make China's CCTV blush, and it makes you think Homer was British rather than Greek. Of course, there is a fundamental difference in the entities. NBC paid nearly $1.2 billion for the rights to show the Olympics, and must get its revenue from advertising. The BBC receives most of its funding from the British public through a $225 license fee that is levied on TV-owning households. It paid $100 million for these Games.

But NBC has a major success story to tell with their historic television ratings. The network has averaged more than 30 million viewers for eight of the first 12 nights of the Olympics, and the average viewership for NBC's primetime coverage has surpassed Beijing on 12 of the first 13 nights of the Games. As of August 10, the London Olympics has averaged 32.6 million viewers in primetime and a household rating of 18.3, making it the most-watched and highest-rated non-U.S. Summer Olympics since the Montreal Olympics in 1976. The 13-day average primetime viewership of 32.6 million viewers is 3.6 million more viewers than the first 13 nights from Beijing (29.0 million) and 6.6 million more than the first 13 nights from Athens (26.0 million). These are the kind of numbers that get television executives a third home in Vail.

The success has carried to NBC's online offerings as well. As of August 9, NBC's Olympics website had received 1.5 billion page views, up from 1.2 billion at this time in Beijing, and the website has streamed 91.4 million streams, up from 75.5 in Beijing. The demographics of young people watching have soared, which no doubt excites IOC members as much as a five-star dinner. Viewership for teens between 12-17 was up 29 percent over Beijing as of August 3, according to NBC, which blasted out press releases about how they were pummeling those kids from Glee.

After passing the 200 million total viewers mark, the London Olympics has become one of the five most-watched events of alltime. When the Games conclude on Sunday night, the event will be either the most-watched in history or second most-watched to the Beijing Games. Once thought to be a money loser, NBC now expects to make a small profit on these Games.

In a 40-minute interview with SI.com at NBC's London offices, NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus addressed multiple topics about his coverage including ratings success, charges of manipulating narratives, a clumsy performance during Opening Ceremonies and why NBC tape-delays high profile events to air in primetime later that night. On the latter topic, which is of prominent importance to Olympic viewers, SI.com asked Lazarus if he would consider moderating NBC's strategy for the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro when a high-profile event occurred on the weekend. For example, why not show the men's 100 meters (run last Sunday afternoon) on one of NBC's networks, and still replay it in primetime later that night with all of the network's trimmings?

"I think it is a risk that we have to calculate," Lazarus said. "I do believe it is a risk. The digital experience has taught us that people watching on those devices are interested in watching, and the research has shown that if you watch online or mobile or a tablet that you are more interested to watch it in the evening. I don't know if that will hold true if you have seen it on television. It's a risk and we will have to make a decision about how much of that calculated risk we are willing to take with our investment. And that is a big part of the equation: We have a responsibility to do the best we can for consumers -- and we are respectful of that -- but we also have to make sure we can make our investment. I have seen a few people writing that [the Olympics] is a public trust. You know what, give it to us for free and maybe we would do it differently."

When asked why the ratings have soared higher than Beijing, Lazarus cited a number of factors including the tonnage of NBC's coverage across platforms and the success of U.S. athletes in London.

"I think our strategy of surrounding the consumer with Olympic content has been accepted," Lazarus said. "We have given the consumer access on every platform and allowed them to be part of it. So they've been given the full Olympic experience and that's one reason. I think the consumers at home like to see coronations and the U.S. team has performed very well. Frankly, this is part of national pride and people are excited to be pulling for the team here. And every two years people like to see the various sports that they don't invest in an the way we package and show the stuff gets people invested in the content. There's a passion for the Games that think is undeniable."

Lazarus is not active on Twitter but has followed the dialogue created in the social media space. After seeing the #NBCFail hashtag explode into the marketplace of ideas, Lazarus said his first reaction was to take it personally.

"You can't help but take it personally, and you feel concerned on what effect that might have on morale on the thousands of people who in some cases have been away from their families for 60 or 90 days to be criticized by some things that are fair, some things that are unfair and some things that are flat-out wrong," he said. "I'm not against criticism and I am on the record saying some of the criticism has been fair. When you are doing 7 months of content in 17 days, do I wish that we were mistake-free? Of course. But we are not. That's a reality and I said before the Games that we won't be perfect though we strive to be perfect.

"As far as being defensive, I would say I am protective of the enterprise and the people who have put so much into this and take pride in what they are doing...I wish that [some of the criticism] was more comprehensive with research or with the understanding of what we are doing and how we are doing it. I got an email the other day from someone who said we had only shown five sports in the Olympics. We have shown 30 sports on television and everything else is available online. Frankly, some of the criticism was very personal and targeted and attacked people by name. That's reality but as someone leading this group, any defensiveness I feel is trying to protect people who are so dedicated."

NBC executives can make the argument that the ratings ultimately justify time shifting the opening ceremonies (which drew 40.7 million viewers) and major events in gymnastics, swimming and track. But the network would be wise to heed some of the criticism from what Lazarus called a "loud minority." There is goodwill to be had from consumers by airing some events previous held for primetime on of its platforms, especially on the weekend when more viewers are around to watch the event both live and in primetime. It is something NBC should consider doing in Sochi.

As part of the extended conversation, Lazarus addressed some specific questions that SI.com readers had via email and Twitter about the coverage:

On whether the high ratings justify NBC's philosophy of how it covers an Olympics:

What we fall back on is that a couple of hundred million people voted with all of their devices that they like what we are doing. They might not like every piece of what we are doing but I think it is gratifying that people are tuning in and in record numbers and against, frankly, our predictions. We believed we would have a successful Games, and we believed we were taking new risks with all the streaming and all the live during the day. What we are gratified about is that it has essentially consumed the dialogue in the States for the last two weeks. Does it justify what we are doing? We think it justifies our model and our business plan but we are also in the game of trying to satisfy consumers. Are we going to satisfy everyone? No. We'd like to. But we think we are satisfying people in great numbers.

On whether he would change or modify NBC's philosophy of tape-delaying the major events live, especially for weekend event:

We are very gratified that our plan has worked, not withstanding the criticism, some of which we understand and take note of. Our coverage will evolve. Will it evolve to where people say we have changed completely? I don't know yet. We will wait for more data to come in. We have done some things that we had not planned on doing. When the two tennis gold medal matches became compelling, because tennis audiences are used to seeing finals airing across the board, we decided to change the timeline on those matches so we were live to both coasts on NBC. It was an evolution midstream and the ratings on the West Coast were half of what they were on the East Coast. If we had held it, I bet our ratings would have been higher. It is not evidence in itself that we should keep doing what we are doing but it's another data point that we will think about.

We will look at the schedule. Once the event schedule is set for Sochi, once the federations say the events are taking place at these times, we will re-evaluate everything. Is there some opportunity to do something different of weekends? Our philosophy is this: primetime is undeniable the time when the most people are available to watch it. Are there are a lot of people available on Saturday and Sunday afternoons? Potentially, yes. Are there more people available on Saturday and Sunday afternoons in the winter than summer? Potentially yes when you look at the weather patterns of the States. So do I think we will evolve the coverage? Yes. But I will not make it definitive now until we get all the research and all the data and see the event schedule for Sochi.

On how much he wants his employees in London to engage and respond to people on Twitter criticizing the Olympic coverage:

I don't think you can stop the communication that occurs in the world right now. I would want our people to be measured in what they say and to be respectful of the criticism. People's opinions are people's opinions and everyone is entitled to them, but if something is making a flat-out wrong or inaccurate statement, I am comfortable with our people making a measured professional response to that.

On dealing with what NBC executives term as unfair criticism:

The claim that we cut out a terrorism tribute during the Opening Ceremonies was wrong. That is just flat-out wrong. That was not a 7/7 [referring to the London bombings in 2005] tribute. [The London Games' artistic director] Danny Boyle did an interview with [NBC's] Meredith Viera afterward and in his words, the 27th of July was his father's birthday, the night of the opening ceremonies. He thought it was a nice idea to put pictures of people who had been working for the Games, or for people to send pictures of their loved ones who could not be part of it, and those pictures were shown on the screen with a hymn called "Abide With Me" [The official program is here]. In Danny's words and in all the meetings we had with him, we never knew those pictures would be up. He never told us that part. It wasn't relevant to what was going on the field of play. In his mind, it had nothing to do with 7/7. Somebody here made the leap that it was which is inaccurate. It then got to the States and someone said we had this terrible omission, which was not an omission. It was omission of the song "Abide With Me," but it was not an omission of what people said it was regarding the 7/7 attacks. If that had been the case of what it was, we might have treated it differently. We would have treated it differently.

This is the first time I've talked about it. We made a decision that with so much vitriol and hatred toward us that for us to come out and try to dispel that, there was no upside for us. So we just took it. Dozens of "real American journalists" picked up on that and berated us for something that was patently wrong -- and it is still getting written. Again, did we make some promotional miscues? Without a doubt. We don't like that and we are not proud of that. But for people to say we are doing some things intentionally, I mean, why would we do that?

On whether he regrets NBC's actions regarding the Twitter suspension of Guy Adams, a Los Angeles-based reporter for the U.K. Independent newspaper who tweeted an NBC executive's work email:

It's a fair question. Do I regret our actions? We were advised -- and this has been documented -- that if we had an issue we would lodge a complaint. We didn't say take him down. We lodged a complaint through the formal process that's on Twitter to lodge a complaint. We did not know what their actions would be. My assumption is that they would have asked him to take down that post. Twitter made a different decision. We are not trying to stifle speech. We are not trying to stifle criticism. If we were trying to stifle criticism, we would not have Twitter and Facebook here as part of the Games. We probably should have known or been advised what their [Twitter] actions might be. That is why we rescinded our complaint and they put him back on. Our executive [Gary Zenkel] not only got a lot of emails, but personal attacks and threats. If I showed you some of the emails we have gotten, you would be horrified that people would speak that way... Our motives were pure and simple to protect Gary from being inundated with profanity and hundreds or thousands of emails that were clogging up the work.

On why Ryan Seacrest was assigned to the Olympics and how he has performed at the Games:

Our thought about Ryan was he's got a cultural relevancy to many people in America who may not be following the Olympics. There have been some people who say, "Why is he there?" I think he is there because of just that. We are trying to cultivate a new generation of Olympic fans and to do that sometimes you stretch the bounds of sport. I think no one is working is harder than Ryan here. He's touching a lot of bases and has built a great rapport with some of the athletes quickly. They look at him as someone they can talk about their story with. I think it gives context to our broadcasts and it's very different from what I will call the reporters such as Michelle Tafoya and Alex Flanagan who are doing post-event reaction.

On the challenges of Rio:

In Rio the time difference is one hour ahead of us. Our big dilemma there will be how much do put on live in primetime? How many networks do we use live in primetime and will we get criticism because we are splinting audience across two or three networks because there are so many events going on? What happens when the women's gymnastics is going on the same time Usain Bolt is running? These are different complexities but things we will have to weigh and decide. We will have to make decisions as will the viewer. But invariably, someone will be mad at us because we did not make the right decision for them. We are trying to make decisions for the largest possible audience we can.

On the charge that NBC has overdramatized certain events, whether leaving the women's swimming 800 meter race or overplaying how close women's gymnastics was:

The 800 we left for two minutes. We have to take care of business. We thought that leaving that race in the middle -- and that did not come with one lap left -- we thought that it was the right place for us to do our business. It won't make everybody happy, but I don't think that affects the drama of the race. In the gymnastics, we did not show one of the Russian gymnasts on the floor. We definitely showed all the scores and we knew exactly where the women were. Our announcers talked at length about how the Russians were going to have to do extremely well. And if they did extremely well even then if the USA performed well, we would win. That was what our announcers set up before either team did the floor exercise. After the second Russian woman stumbled mightily, the third one went and we did not show the third woman. But when we came back it was set up very clearly that the U.S. needed to perform and [gymnastics analyst] Tim Daggett said Aly Raisman should probably take one of the hard things out of her routine, which she did, because all they needed to do is do well. We do not believe we artificially created drama there. That was not our intent. It was about making the show good. Our viewers want to see how the Americans are reacting and preparing. We don't believe the third Russian woman had any impact on the outcome. That's why we left it out.

On whether NBC has given enough coverage to non-American athletes:

I believe so, yes. We created 50 long-form features for the games; 25 are from the U.S. and 25 are global athletes. [Olympic 400-meter gold medalist] Kirani James comes from Grenada, which has never won a medal before, and we sent a crew to Grenada. That does not happen by accident. It comes with thinking and planning on who will do well. The fact that we had a TV crew at Grenada House here and when he was running, we rolled that into the coverage of them going absolutely nuts and deservedly so. We are not ignoring what is going on. The best stories will bubble to the top whether it is Oscar Pistorius, or Kirani James. I think we have well documented the success of Great Britain and Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake. I think we have done a good job of chronicling them. Are we going to satisfy everyone? Of course not.

On problems with NBC Live Extra app, specifically the stream not being up to the standard:

I think certainly at the beginning we had some technical issues. We worked through them. We have never done anything on this scale. People have said others have done something on this scale but I don't really believe that anyone has done this on this great scale, with this quantity of content. Part of it is we are very popular and there are bandwidth issue that are being caused by so many people trying to get on. We have had five, six, seven events that have had over a million streams. I'm sure there are hundreds if not thousands of people who have had problems, but there are millions who are enjoying what we are doing. This will be one of the watershed moments of TV Everywhere. We will close in on 10 million devices that will have been authenticated by the end of the Games, and that is a watershed event. Again, we prefer to be perfect. But we are breaking new ground and sometimes when you break new ground, you are always not always perfect.

On the comparison with the BBC's coverage:

That is an interesting comparison because in theory no one should be able to get both because of geography, laws and piracy. So I'm not sure all the comparisons are honest or direct to direct comparisons or whether it is people reading one thing and making assumptions. I watch the BBC in my hotel in the morning. They are a public trust and they do things differently. I think their coverage is fine. It is not the way we would do it. But I think their coverage is good for what they are trying to accomplish. I have nothing but praise for what they are doing.

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