Director Danny Boyle wove lavish musical tributes to the Industrial Revolution and the U.K.’s National Health Service into the Olympic Opening Ceremonies, which almost sounds like a Monty Python sketch. Paul McCartney sang flat. Ryan Seacrest read his questions off note cards.
And none of it mattered.
In TV terms, the Olympics are the highest of high concepts — a noble ideal about international fellowship, mixing sports, politics and the inherent drama of training an entire life (to borrow from another marquee event) for one shining moment. Forall the second-guessing about the London Games — including the recurring issue of tape-delayed events for primetime in the U.S., or conversely, diluting NBC’s efforts by promiscuously scattering thousands of coverage hours across NBCUniversal networks and the Web — the initial ratings were spectacular. Despite an uneven Opening Ceremony with as many peculiar flourishes as dazzling ones, more than 40 million people tuned in Friday, per Nielsen estimates, amassing an Oscar-sized audience on a network that averaged less than a fifth as many for the 2011-12 TV season.
Yet that’s also why attempts to bottle and preserve the magic — as NBC is again seeking to do — almost invariably fall flat.
NBC has opted to produce special promos for many of its new shows, employing Olympic themes. While one can admire the creativity, the end result has a way of obscuring rather than highlighting what these programs might have to offer.
Perhaps that’s why the ad that most stood out Friday was actually for the next James Bond movie, “Skyfall,” which enjoyed the added bonus of having star Daniel Craig make a grand entrance with the queen. Talk about high-class product placement.
Saturday’s coverage of the first full day of competition was predictably jingoistic. Indeed, one could easily have mistaken an introduction of the U.S. men’s gymnastics team with a spot for “The Expendables 2” airing a few minutes later. And having Ryan Seacrest recap social-media responses to the Games would surely take the gold if pandering to younger demos becomes an Olympic event.
Still, preliminary results for Saturday looked strong, suggesting Friday was no fluke. NBC also caught a potential break story-wise with swimmer Michael Phelps’ fourth-place finish, which should add zest and suspense to his quest to become the most-honored Olympic athlete ever.
An element of fatigue is almost sure to set in by the second week, but by then, the plan is for everyone to have seen enough promos for “Go On,” “Revolution” and “Chicago Fire” to last a lifetime.
Whatever the concerns about diluting tune-in — starting with the gluttonous buffet of programming available — the Olympics endure, and little is likely to prevent London from being a rousing success by today’s fragmented broadcast standards. As former NBCU chief Jeff Zucker observed during the last Summer Games in 2008, “The pipes still work” — even if the plumbing seldom needs to accommodate such a stream of viewers.
Once Phelps and company get out of the pool, though, it’s a whole new ballgame, and what looks like a rush of momentum can quickly prove ephemeral.
Like a gold medalist, NBC can be forgiven for exulting in the moment. Yet if history’s any guide, we’d all be wise to remember the distinction between catching a wave vs. merely making a splash.