On Tuesday night, NBC aired the seemingly effortless gold-medal win of the American gymnastics team at the Rio Olympics, cementing the legacy of U.S. gymnastics from the Atlanta games in 1996 and the London games in 2012. The team of petite and powerful athletes, led by Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, and Laurie Hernandez, vaulted and flipped their way to a comfortable 8-point lead over their closest competitors, Russia and China. The competition was capped by a nearly flawless floor routine by Biles, the 4’8” phenom who, according to some sports writers, is not just the best gymnast in the world but possibly the greatest gymnast ever. Color commentator Tim Daggett, a former gymnast himself, gushed over the team — and as Biles finished her routine to secure Team USA the gold, speculated that “many little girls” watching at home would be inspired to go into gymnastics.
But the American gymnasts didn’t accept their awards until 11:45 p.m. If any little girls were watching, they really should have been asleep.
Women’s gymnastics is one of the most beloved Olympic sports in America, and last night’s ratings proved that point again: The night overall notched a strong 11.9 in the 18-49 demographic according to the Nielsen overnights. But in an effort to juice the numbers for the rest of NBC’s Olympic coverage, the network split the gymnastics competition into two parts: A shorter segment airing right at 8 p.m. that featured the athletes on the vault and uneven bars, and then a longer segment starting at around 11 p.m. that took the gymnasts through the balance beam, floor exercises, and post-win celebration.
In between, from about 8:30 p.m. to 11 p.m., NBC aired seemingly endless swimming coverage — mostly to feature record-breaking athletes Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky, albeit with much more focus on Phelps, who added two more gold medals to his now unmatched collection. The programming included several semifinal heats and a close look at Phelps’ feud with South African swimmer Chad le Clos.
Gymnastics is a sport with quite a bit of downtime built in, but the hours-long split between segments was an artificial division. All of the material was pretaped: The gymnastics team won their medals about 2.5 hours before NBC’s primetime coverage began. By teasing the gymnastics coverage early in the evening, NBC attempted to lock in viewers for the rest of the evening. The gambit worked — though overnight numbers were stronger than 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. numbers, which stood at a 9.9 in the demo — but in the midst of a highly anticipated story that had already been ruined for many viewers via the Internet, it felt egregious to push the biggest story of the night to past 11 p.m. On the West Coast, viewers watched the gymnastics final over nine hours after it actually happened.
The network’s cynical ploy for viewers was not helped by either the poor quality of the opening package — which was edited together sloppily and a little hastily, almost as if it was meant to recap the evening’s events instead of bringing the viewer inside of it. Most of us who have watched gymnastics before are familiar with the long moments of waiting for the judges’ scores or for the next team to finish. They are uneventful, but much of the behind the scenes downtime offers a window into the gymnasts’ personalities — and to glimpse athletes from other countries.
Instead of that type of immersion, NBC aired commercial after commercial. During one particularly rapacious stretch, a commercial break led directly into a promo for Ryan Seacrest’s upcoming Olympics-themed late show, and then right back into another set of commercials.
It must be tempting for NBC to just air those lucrative Olympics commercials during primetime, while plying viewers with the promise of actual coverage once they pass the important threshold of 11 p.m. But it’s a cynical manipulation of its viewers that does a disservice to the Olympic Games, in service of the short-term cash-grab. Even with their manipulation, Olympics ratings have fallen this year compared to London 2012. And though, to be sure, there are many possible explanations for why traditional night-of ratings would be lower in multi-screen, streaming-service, cord-cutting 2016, it couldn’t hurt to make the network’s Olympics coverage worth tuning in for.
It’s disappointing, because NBC has a strong team on the ground in Rio de Janeiro, and the Olympics are inherently captivating. And yet, somehow, it’s turning some of the most memorable moments of the 2016 Games into ad-bloated segments that seem designed to frustrate the audience. Perhaps it would be a better strategy for NBC to invest in enticing viewers with programming that offers more respect for their increasingly precious time and attention, instead of manipulating them into resenting the only source for Rio 2016 in the U.S.