Are you excited for Friday’s opening ceremony? The fireworks, the still-bare necks of medal-less superhumans, the dashing yachting attire, Gisele (maybe). If the spectacular displays of national pride that kicked off the Summer Olympics in Beijing and London are any indication, the start to the 2016 games will be breathtaking. Who knows what surprises the Rio organizers have in store?
I’ll tell you who knows, or at least who will by the time you first catch sight of a torch: Everybody outside the United States. NBC, which has exclusive Olympic broadcasting rights in the U.S., is airing many of the games’ marquee events on a tape delay. This includes the opening ceremony, which begins at 7 p.m. Eastern time, but won’t air until 8 p.m. on the East Coast. The delay is even worse out West: By the time the fireworks flicker to life in California, four hours will have passed since they were actually set off. (The internet won’t help you, either: NBC is also holding back its online stream.) Many of the major athletic contests to follow will also be shown on a delay: Men’s gymnastics, many swimming events, and dozens of others won’t appear on American airwaves until long after heats end and judges raise their placards.
NBC’s goal, of course, is to push the most popular Olympic events into prime time, so that people can get home from work and tune in. This is all well and good, except that there’s this thing called the internet that beams information, pictures, and video around the planet at great speeds. Attendees in Rio will share what they see live, as will the rest of the world, which isn’t subject to NBC’s ideas about optimal viewing experience. Unless you stay off social media, the odds that you won’t see images of fireworks from the opening ceremony long before they appear on your TV are slim.
This effect will be dramatically heightened when it comes to events: What’s the point in watching a race if you already know who won? NBC has managed to create a situation in which the world’s greatest athletic competition is subject to Game of Thrones-esque spoilers. NBC is in search of ratings, naturally, and maintains that the decision to air taped events is merely an attempt to bring the games to the bigge$t audience po$$ible. $orry, what wa$ that? Did you $ay $omething?
In 2012, NBC pulled in so much in revenue, including $1.25 billion just from advertising, that even the network was surprised. The controversial tape delays deployed to align London time more closely with American clocks — including withholding live footage of Michael Phelps’s four gold-medal-winning swims — resulted in the games being what was then the most-watched television event in U.S. history. But it’s one thing to delay events happening in radically different time zones; if the opening ceremony were to take place at, say, 3 a.m. ET, it might make sense to wait to air it until more Americans are awake. That’s not the case here: The time zone that Rio de Janeiro is located in is just one hour ahead of the time on the East Coast. NBC’s decision to delay its broadcast is absurd at best, and shallowly profit-minded at worst.
Lest you think that enforcing tape delays that prevent American viewers from being able to participate in a global spectacle is purely for the sake of NBC’s greed, think again: It’s also for the sake of the International Olympic Committee’s greed. The IOC now takes a gargantuan share of television revenue. Whereas the committee collected just 4 percent of TV proceeds from 1960 to 1980, its share of the 2012 games stood at more than 70 percent. In London, that meant that the IOC pocketed $1.18 billion from NBC, and another $1.3 billion from non-U.S. broadcasters.
It’s safe to say the relationship goes both ways: NBC has been lobbying the IOC to have American athletes march toward the end of the opening ceremony procession. Tradition holds that nations appear in alphabetical order according to the host country’s language, so the United States would be “Estados Unidos” in Brazil, sending the national team out into the Maracanã early. Will the IOC bend the rules in honor of its very own cash cow? We’ll see Friday — but not until everyone else already has.