Is Television Holding the Olympics Back?

I was able to watch a fair bit of the Olympics last week, but now that Lorie and I are back in Bridger, I’m afraid I haven’t really been able to keep up with what’s been going on. There’s a television in the house, of course, but Lorie’s folks have their own viewing habits, and I don’t want to disrupt things for them just to watch highlights of nothing in particular, so really the only thing I know about the games is either headlines that float around on the internet or newspaper, or the cold statistics of posted results. But, of course, life goes on– I don’t need to watch the Olympics, I just like to do so.

One would hope that the internet could come to the rescue here, but, sadly, this does not seem to be the case. In an era where streaming video has practically become the norm, it seems ridiculous that the Olympics wouldn’t be available online. There’s so many advantages to it, really: do you want to see an event as it happens? Just tune in to a live stream. Do you want to watch it at your convenience? Well, it’s available in an archived version that can be viewed whenever. Do you want to watch badminton, but have no patience for watching every swim race ever? That’s okay, just watch what you’re interested in! Would you rather follow Hungarian fencing than American volleyball? There are so many possibilities for watching the Olympics online it’s like the internet was invented just for it. TV works good for mono-events like the Superbowl, but it’s not such a good venue for fourteen things happening at once twelve hours a day for two weeks.

And I think you can do this online now, actually, not just as a theoretical possibility. The problem is, it can only be done under one of two conditions that I don’t match: I need to be in a different country, where the contractual minutia for broadcasting the games is different, or I need to have a subscription to cable television. I know, I know, first world problem: “I can’t watch the Olympics over the internet.” Believe me, I appreciate the fact that I can go through my day without worrying about cholera or landmines, and yes, there are things that need far more global attention. Still, as I watch newspapers flounder and drown as a consequence of their own inability to adapt to a world containing the internet, I wonder if television as we know it isn’t far off from a similar fate.

It might be some ways distant, true, but assuming civilization doesn’t collapse in the coming decades (now I’m thinking about those bigger global problems, like rising energy costs, environmental instability, food shortages, and the fact that poorly-written fan-fiction erotica is now topping the national bestseller lists), the writing is on the wall for television. What the network executives might not be noticing these days is that no one cares about their networks: their audience cares about content. Maybe I’m a rarity in this regard, but I do most of my “TV” viewing via a computer now. Instead of being tied to a specific network-determined time and place, I watch at my convenience. As it is, the big networks are still the kings of content (for now), because that’s where the production money is. But what happens when companies like Hulu, and perhaps places we haven’t even heard of yet, start making their own content on a larger or better-funded scale?

I’m obviously way outside of my industry when it comes to all of this speculation (and probably have a lot of fuzzy assumptions), but I feel like we’re moving away from an old model of having a phone, having internet, having cable, and moving toward just having “data”. Right now, the American television networks seem to have a fairly enviable position. They make the content, and they don’t have to worry about distribution– someone else (i.e., a cable company) pipes it into the homes of America. The problem that will eventually catch up to television, though, is the same thing that happened when folks started canceling their newspaper subscriptions in lieu of receiving news from alternative channels: no eyeballs on their ads.

It’s not a 100% correlation, of course. In terms of news, folks want to find out how the Queen and the Pope got along while they were on their motorcycle trip across China, not whether the Boston Globe or the Washington Post broke the story. There’s probably a little bit more brand-loyalty to networks, where people know that FOX makes great shows that will get cancelled after thirteen episodes, and CBS only makes programs about people getting murdered.

But, I’m wandering away from my initial thought: the Olympics. Do I think this will be the last Olympics that has to cling to an American broadcaster to be seen in America? Probably not– but I hope that the Olympic masterminds are looking more to the future than the television networks. Yes, the games need the advertising revenue that networks can give them, or at least they do now. Nevertheless, the Olympics somehow happened in the first part of the twentieth century with virtually no involvement from television.

These days, there seems to be a lot of Catch-22s regarding the Olympics and funding. The Olympics need the networks for funding, the networks need viewers for ad revenue, ergo the Olympics needs viewers, but the Olympics is being locked away from having even more viewers so the networks can maintain control. It’s almost as though the networks are painfully aware that they’re merely middle-men in this scenario. It seems conceivable that the Olympics could be its own content distributer in the future, using the web to broadcast directly to viewers while inserting their own ads for their sponsors without the involvement of a television network. Heck, they could still sell their content to the networks, it’s just that the relationship between them would be more of an equal partnership, and less dependent. But, such a thing would take time, and it would take a lot of money. An independent games would likely have to operate on a much tighter budget.

Would a less expensive Olympic games be less flashy? Fewer jumbo-trons? Not as many scratch-built buildings? Smaller torches to keep the gas bill lower? Reduced drummer budgets for the opening ceremony? Probably. And perhaps that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

The Olympics is all about human achievement, after all, not the spectacle. When it comes down to it, the whole reason I want to watch the Olympics (online or not) is because I want to see the best athletes in the world compete in sports I enjoy, not just watch the best Americans Likely To Win Medals in Events Americans Like To Watch, or for that matter, see The Best Swim Center Money Can Build.

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