Usain Bolt's historic run marks the end of an era for NBC's Olympics coverage
Usain Bolt, the world's fastest man and indisputably one of the great athletes of all time, won the Olympic 100-meter dash for an unprecedented third straight time on Sunday night.
In the United States, the event was aired live on the East Coast during a primetime Sunday night slot.
For NBC, Bolt's run was the pinnacle of its Olympic coverage. This was one of the world's best athletes, in the world's most exciting event, on the world's biggest stage, on live television.
This is why NBC pays billions to air the games: to bring you Usain Bolt. Live.
And for reasons that go beyond Bolt's impending retirement, this event marked the end of an era for NBC's Olympics coverage.
Sunday night is some of the most valuable TV real estate out there — a slot NBC dominates during the NFL season.
As the traditional cable bundle begins to fall apart, live events, like sports and award shows, are fast becoming the premier events for networks like NBC, CBS, and ABC.
Because whereas almost any kind of traditional TV programming has been upended in its own way — the news by the internet, sitcoms and dramas by DVR and other on-demand offerings — live events still require those who want to see the show to watch it at the same time.
This makes a live event a scarce and dwindling commodity in the media business. And while live events have the potential to be flops — think of a bad Super Bowl or a bad year of movies for the Oscars — when these events deliver, they remind viewers, networks, and advertisers why this is the best real estate in media.
There is simply nothing better than the live drama of Bolt's run on Sunday night.
And with the Rio games taking place just one hour ahead of the New York market, these games have been an amazing opportunity for NBC to air live sporting events, the best thing any network could show a viewer.
But the Rio Games, however, are very much the end of an era for NBC.
So far, ratings for Rio have been down from London, though NBC's many online offerings (as I write this, I'm watching Monday morning's track session online, a view that isn't going to be picked up in Nielsen's ratings) have made these numbers tough to compare.
Regardless of where the ratings shake out, NBC is certainly treating its broadcast of the games as largely traditional. The opening ceremony was tape-delayed, gymnastics has been tape-delayed, and the overall broadcast is as much about pushing a precooked narrative as it is about reacting to what happens in competition.
Comparing the habits of TV viewers and news consumers from, say, 2004 with today is to see a radical shift in the media business.
In 2004, there was no social media, no smartphones, and newspapers still reigned supreme over news on the internet. Today, of course, all of this has flipped. Newspapers are a relic, live TV is dying, and information is instantaneously disseminated across platforms.
And the pace of change — from 2004 to 2008, 2008 to 2012, 2012 to 2016 — has not been linear.
Looking to the 2020 and 2024 games, NBC faces what will likely be an even more radically altered media environment. The platforms on which people consume media seem likely to be even more fractured four and eight years out.
In addition to the changing habits and technology that face NBC in upcoming Olympics, the Tokyo games pose an obvious challenge for the network: a time difference.
Tokyo is 13 hours ahead of New York. Surely many viewers will watch premier events — gymnastics, swimming, and track — either on tape delay or live while at work. But the organic experience of millions of Americans turning on their TVs to see that it's time for the spectacle that is Usain Bolt, however, will not be back.
This is in part about Bolt's impending retirement, part about the time issues that NBC faces in Tokyo, and part about how the media landscape is likely to change further for NBC.
On Sunday night, Bolt's run served as one of the great sporting and media moments of the last several years. Social media networks were aflame after Bolt's run. NBC's coverage captured the drama perfectly. And Bolt's braggadocio carried the moment as only he can.
And by the time the next Bolt comes around, all of this will have changed.
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