internet sports Uncategorized

Why is NBC’s Olympics video-streaming website so awful?

In the run-up to the 2014 Olympics, NBC tooted its own horn. Every event, the network boasted, would be streamed live, online. Viewers wouldn’t have to wait for the primetime broadcast or dodge social media spoilers all day. Instead, they could watch the drama unfold, as it happened, on NBC’s website.

What NBC didn’t explain is that the website would be maddening to use.

There are some minor quibbles we might have overlooked. Take the technical glitches, for example. Commercials interrupt the action at bizarre, seemingly random moments, and the video’s prone to constant buffering. And NBC employs “B team” announcers for its webcasts. These aren’t the top-notch commentators you’ll hear in primetime, but less-knowledgable, less-interesting foreign analysts.

But these are small-scale infractions, compared to the website’s cardinal sin: it’s utterly inscrutable and impossible to navigate.

NBC’s Olympics site includes no comprehensive menu for finding video streams. There’s no straightforward schedule you can click through to find your favorite event’s full replay. The search functionality is laughably useless. Even the overhyped “Gold Zone,” a daily stream that shows the best action as it happens, is difficult to find. Gold Zone’s URL changes daily, so you can’t bookmark it. Instead, you must somehow track down each day’s brand-new link. (Thank goodness for Twitter.)

Other video content is even harder to find. Take the medal ceremonies, for example. I’ve always loved seeing how athletes respond on the podium. They spend years toiling in obscurity, and then they get one moment in the sun. They’re sleep-deprived, homesick, and surrounded by patriotic fans and their family. When that anthem kicks in, strong emotions inevitably surface. This all makes for great TV drama.

But try—just try—to find medal ceremonies on NBC’s website. You’d think there’d be a “medal ceremonies” section—a single page dedicated to the heralded hardware handout. There isn’t. The only page I found, “Medal Ceremonies — Day One,” includes a broken video stream and an apologetic disclaimer: “This event has concluded; event replay will be available at 3:00 PM EST.” This, six days after “Day One.”

Why is NBC’s Olympics website so awful? The network spent hundreds of millions of dollars on its Games coverage. Why not throw a few million into UX design? Is the network really this inept?

I suspect not. My conspiracy theory: NBC intentionally borks its streaming site, so that viewers are forced to watch on traditional broadcast TV.

See, TV’s in a weird transition time. The writing’s on the wall: eventually all video will be online video. But the telcos are tough negotiators. They’re loathe to see their valuable satellite and cable customers cut the cord. So, they strike deals with the networks that prevent NBC (or ESPN or AMC) from streaming shows to non-subscribers. These days, you’re forced to authenticate as a cable or satellite customer if you want to stream your favorite shows.

And even if you can access online content, the networks would prefer that you didn’t. In terms of ad revenue, Internet video can’t compete with ‘broadcast’ television. More traditional TV viewers means higher ratings. Higher ratings mean higher ad rates. Higher ad rates make for more profitable broadcasts.

So it’s in NBC’s best interest to make the website impossibly frustrating. They’re hoping that you give up and turn back to the more reliable cable box. That way, the network can boast about its “forward-leaning” media strategy—without sacrificing its lucrative Nielsen numbers.

TV Uncategorized

Phoning it in

I’ve loved late-night television since I was twelve. That year, David Letterman’s *Late Show” premiered on CBS, and Conan O’Brien took over Dave’s old Late Night slot on NBC.

We lived out in the sticks, so our TV just barely tuned in the broadcast stations. I had to squint to make out Dave’s toothy grin or Conan’s epic pompadour. But even through the static, it was clear that both hosts were at the top of their games in the 90s. Dave had perfected his goofy every-man schtick; Conan peddled his unique blend of absurdist humor (flute-playing cacti, staring contests with his bandleader, etc.).

Twenty years later, both hosts are still on the air (can you count TBS as “on the air”?). And both are still funny. But both Dave and Conan have fallen from the comedic heights.

And it’s not just my millennial nostalgia that makes the modern shows seem inferior. There’s an objective barometer for this claim: the number of remote segments.

For both Dave and Conan, the funniest bits were always these “remotes”—pre-taped segments that took place outside the studio. Here’s the basic premise: send the host to some quirky locale and let him joke with (or at) people out in the real world. For example, watch David Letterman, harassing McDonalds’ drive-thru customers. Or Conan, joining an old-timey baseball league, then freaking out when a plane flies overhead (“What ho! What is that demonry?!”). Even the blandest late-night comic, Jay Leno, is almost watchable when his Tonight Show includes a man-on-the-street segment.

But as shows (and their hosts) mature, they schedule fewer and fewer remotes. Easier-to-produce bits take their place. More comedy gets out-sourced to the writing and production staff. Monologues grow bloated. Top ten lists (for Dave) or bits like “If They Mated” (for Conan) become regular features. Interview segments get stretched over multiple commercial breaks (particularly when an A-list celebrity shows up on the call sheet).

These shows ossify over time, settling into a rhythm and codifying the comedy. And it’s hard to blame the hosts for slowing down over the decades. After all, Conan and (especially) Dave aren’t young men anymore. What worked for a twenty-five-year-old Letterman doesn’t work for an AARP card-holder. In his early days, Letterman wrapped himself in Velcro and hurled himself against walls. He donned an Alka-Seltzer suit and plunged himself into a giant aquarium. He bounded eagerly to the Rockefeller roof and tossed TVs to the pavement below.

But it’s not just the demands of physical humor that force hosts to ease up. It’s the demands of human life. As with many of us, young adulthood’s workaholic obsessions give way to other concerns: family, travel, public image. A host gradually transitions from the show’s manic, driven nucleus to “the talent”. Once the driving force behind the program, now the host must be wrangled and handled and accommodated. He’s earned his place at the top of the heap; let the interns and the writers and the associate producers scramble and fret.

Regardless of why late-night shows stop producing these taped bits, the shows suffer. No matter how masterfully a host can read the cue cards or step through sketches prepared by his underlings, there’s a staleness to his performance. I miss the improvisational wackiness these hosts left behind.

One last thought. During the early years of Dave’s Late Show, he consistently outperformed Leno in the ratings race. I wonder; if Dave had remained committed to his best stuff—the wacky, outside-the-studio bits—would Jay have overtaken him in 1995? Or might Dave have regained the ratings crown when the Conan/NBC kerfuffle erupted?

music sports TV Uncategorized

Bugler’s Nightmare

It’s high drama in concert band form. Brutish, martial timpani pound out a perfect fourth. A reckless cymbal crashes. Chimes toll out the measures. And then, with almost dizzying pomp, the brass enters and exults.

No, it’s not the official Olympics theme music; some lame hymn claims that title. But (at least in the American imagination) “Bugler’s Dream” is the Olympic soundtrack. That’s all the more impressive when you consider that Léo Arnaud didn’t compose the piece ‘til 1958. And “Dream” didn’t show up in an Olympics broadcast until ten years after that. Think of it: seventy-odd years without “Bugler’s Dream”! One wonders how the tournament survived those dark decades, its listless, “Dream”-less athletes too depressed to compete.

So maybe I should be grateful that NBC included the piece at all in their February broadcasts. After all, they haven’t always played “Bugler’s Dream” for the Winter Olympics; too often, it was reserved exclusively for the Summer Games. But, no, they used it, ad nauseum—or at least a rearrangement of the piece by John Williams (of Star Wars fame). Yes, we got “Bugler’s Dream.”

But we didn’t get all of it. Here’s the opening page from the classic score:


That last line is the timpani part; the pic’s resolution is low, but you should be able to count two measures of timpani intro before the brass bombasts. Now, here’s the opening montage from NBC’s nightly Olympics broadcasts for comparison:

Great, right? The clip starts late, but NBC clearly includes both measures of timpani.

Unfortunately (and here’s the key point), this was rare during NBC’s 2010 Olympics coverage. More often than not, when NBC played Arnaud’s “Dream,” they cut out a whole measure of the timpanic intro. We were given just five notes to prepare for the brass blast-off. In other words, NBC forced me to revel too early. I need both measures to gird my loins for the full orchestra’s triumphant entry. The solo timpani, simple and spare, provides the contrast that makes the trumpet smack-down so breathtaking in the first place! Chop out a full measure, and you’re left with a dull dramatic hiccup.  Why would NBC do this? Why short-circuit their own spectacle?

Why else? Making room for commercials, baby. More often than not, “Bugler’s Dream” served as the soundtrack for a tightly-edited roll of corporate sponsors. With their broadcast costs spiraling out of control, NBC sacrificed sports showmanship for sports sponsorship. No time for drama! No time for the majesty of sport! We have a Visa logo to display! We have a Samsung slogan to spout! We have a semi-sacrosanct Olympic symbol to desecrate!

UPDATE: Here’s what I’m talking about. Listen for the single measure of timpani going into the commercial break.