An Overdose of the Olympics

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NBC has embraced a novel twist on the user-generated content phenomenon: it plans to broadcast more than a month’s worth of athlete generated content, or "AGC," via Vancouver Olympics programming over its cable stations and web sites. 

I can’t help but think such a decision comes from the same ideology that gave us a Jay Leno comedy show in primetime: unscripted programming is cheaper to produce than scripted entertainment, while ad rates are determined by viewing eyeballs, so the profit margin is potentially higher for shows that are even marginally based on reality. And since NBC paid $2 billion just for the rights to broadcast the 2010 and 2012 Olympics, it has every incentive to repurpose that AGC wherever and whenever it can.

Only you can’t rely on reality to be always entertaining. Demand this time may or may not track with viewership last time, and you can’t bank on available eyeballs when unpredictable events in the real-time news cycle may steal them away. What’s even more unpredictable are the sporting events themselves: great match-ups go bust while others pass by unappreciated (who knew that the bitter curling rivalry would flare so marvelously?), which makes picking the winner programs all but impossible to do, save in replay. 

NBC has effectively outsourced a month of programming over which it has absolutely no control over characters or plot. The recent Leno/Conan mess is vivid proof that this model is about as reliable as basing your revenue plans on a lottery number. 

There’s nothing inherently wrong with NBC’s idea of AGC, but I do think that the perpetual motion magic of viewers finding it (and finding it innately compelling) is just daft. Consumer experience needs narrative flow and purpose, and that usually means scripting forethought and viewer targeting. Instead of being blinded by its gee-wiz idea for avoiding this fact, it should have created programming a year ago to build on its Olympics franchise. Scripts could have been minimized and use of ARG and editing studios maximized. So:

  • Where was the "Real Athletes of the O.C." reality show following the sexual shenanigans of a house full of good looking would-be gold medalists as they vied for a place on their national teams?
  • Why hasn’t there been a weekly sports news program tracking what’s been going on, giving us competitive match-up drama that sometimes goes back generations?
  • How about the social media communities enabling would-be spectators to vote on broadcast attributes like camera placement, talking heads, and available stats?
  • Why couldn’t families of future Olympians register to accrue "loyalty points" for the country teams of their choice?
  • Shouldn’t there be a series of docu-dramas on connections between the Olympics and world history (i.e. the Olympics during the Cold War, before World War II, and now)?
  • How about enabling real UGC and encouraging consumers to post their own Olympic dreams, however real or fantastic, and then giving them special access to strains of event coverage that are uniquely suited to their interests?

NBC may well deliver its viewership numbers in spite of its lack of true innovation. A road-block of programming is a hard thing to avoid, though it wouldn’t be wholly surprising if consumers chose to click instead of endure it. This begs another question, though: presuming the eyeballs are there, what will the advertisers actually achieve beyond, well, exposure? Many big name brands have already decided that even in the best case scenarios it’s simply not worth it.

So I get the idea of managing programming costs, even on uber-expensive gigs, and I happen to find reality pretty damn interesting and often entertaining. But a month’s worth of Olympic coverage? NBC could have done so much more and, with bidding soon to begin on the next menu of competitions, you’d think the brain trust at the I.O.C. would have the incentive to encourage deals that went beyond dollars to better match time with real viewer engagement. 

After everyone’s done catching the summary clips on Hulu and YouTube, maybe NBC will get to work building a viable model for AGC. After all, 2012 is only two years away.

Image source:  Vironevaeh

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