Every four years it is one of the most watched events of any kind in the world, attracting close to a billion people to a spectacle that aims to bring the globe together ahead of more than two weeks of sporting competition. But, if you happen to be in the United States on Friday, you will not, at least legally, be able to join the rest of the world in watching the 2016 Olympics opening ceremony live from Rio de Janeiro.
In a decision that has already brought much criticism, NBC, the broadcast rights holder for the Olympic Games since 1988, will screen the event on a one-hour delay. While the event actually starts at 7 p.m. on the East Coast, viewers in the U.S. will have to wait until 8 p.m. in order to watch it, not only on television, but online as well. In this instance, NBC’s live streaming won’t, in fact, be "live." If viewers on the East Coast think they have it bad, those on the West Coast will have to wait until four hours after the Opening Ceremony gets underway in order to see it on their TV screens.
It is not a new step for NBC, which is paying $1.23 billion for the Olympics' broadcast rights. Four years ago in London, the network also showed the event on tape delay in order to get it into primetime. And there is reason for them to view the move as a success given that it attracted a record audience for an Olympics opening ceremony of 41 million.
NBC has again defended the decision again this time around, insisting it isn’t purely about getting it into the coveted primetime slot, but “curating” the event for the American audience.
“We think it's important to give the context to the show,” NBC Sports Group chairman Mark Lazarus said last month. “These Opening Ceremonies will be a celebration of Brazilian culture, of Rio, of the pageantry, of the excitement, of the flair that this beautiful nation has. We think it's important that we're able to put that in context for the viewer so that it's not just a flash of color.
“The question, I would say, is: If we were to air it live, and we were going to put commercials in the Games - because we are a public company and have duties to our shareholders - which parts would they like us to cut out?”
That statement at the unveiling of NBC’s Olympics coverage failed to satisfy dissenters, given the closeness of the time zones this time around. Still, the man who will present NBC’s coverage once again, Bob Costas, does not understand why people have taken issue.
“The complaints about the opening ceremony strike me as silly,” he told the Hollywood Reporter. “The opening ceremony is just that, a ceremony. A performance. It is not a competition. It makes perfect sense to delay it, and only by an hour on the East Coast, so that any minor tweaks — none of which would remove anything essential — can be made. As for the West Coast, who in their right mind wants this on in the afternoon instead of in primetime?”
Yet it is hard not to seriously query the decision in an age when social media, especially Twitter, has become such a key part in how huge numbers of people around the world enjoy major events. The last opening ceremony in London is estimated to have been watched by around 900 million people, with 2008’s in Beijing nearly reaching the one billion mark.
The U.S. will be alone among the world’s major nations in being left out of the live experience. Just to the north, and on the same time zone, Canada will be showing the opening ceremony without delay on TV and online via CBC.
NBC’s desire to mold the global event into an American event stretches beyond just delaying the opening ceremony. The network was successful in getting the times of the swimming events pushed back in order to maximize the viewing audience in the U.S. – a decision that has not gone down well with the actual athletes competing. As the most lucrative market for the Games, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) often bows to NBC’s wishes.
That was not the case, though, with another NBC request – to get the language of the opening ceremony changed from Portuguese to English. That was desired by NBC in order that the U.S. competitors would come out near the end of the Parade of Nations, giving people reason to stay for the whole ceremony, rather than somewhere in the middle because in Portuguese the team falls under the name Estados Unidos.
As for the choice to delay coverage of the opening ceremony, it is likely to cause a rush of people attempting to circumvent NBC’s grip on Olympic coverage. Those living close to the Canadian border will be able to watch it live on CBC. For others, there is the option of making the internet think you are outside the U.S. so as to watch CBC’s coverage or indeed the coverage from many of the countries streaming it live such as Britain’s BBC. However, while virtual private networks, which allow you to alter the location of your IP address, are legal, using them to watch the opening ceremony likely isn’t, because of NBC’s exclusive broadcasting rights.