Entraining a sports event – the Olympics

Live versus life

I’ve been enjoying the absolute pasting NBC has been getting for showing recorded Olympics coverage rather than showing it live.  But they’ve also been getting massive audiences to the sports in the evening, which raises the question of how to balance high levels of PUTS with high levels of PUTZ.    That is, do they delay the programmes until the evening when there are more People Using Television, even if it makes NBC look like penises idiots?

Peter Bazalgette. He knows a thing or two about live TV

It reminded me of  something interesting that Peter Bazalgette said a few months ago..  He remembered that when he bought his first 7-inch single, Adam Faith’s excellent What Do You Want, it was the fact that it was recorded that was so exciting.  For thousands of years, music had been a live thing – actual musicians right there in the room or the town square.  Then suddenly, the 7-inch single made music portable, ready to play wherever you wanted.

They’re dancing but there are no musicians in the room. This didn’t happen before the 1950s

Then being recorded became the norm, and despite the crisis in the music industry, we must listen to more recorded music than ever these days.  But now, it’s being live that excites people. Recording, shrekording, we want to experience something as it happens.  Or, at least, we want some of the spontaneity or energy, or one-offness that live has, or implies –  it makes us feel involved.  It’s the killer app that sports on TV provides, and which the rest of TV aspires to.

Bazalgette pointed out that there are four different forms of live TV.  There’s sports and there’s news, and there are event type reality programmes like The X Factor and the Eurovision Song Contest, or Big Brother with which Bazalgette is associated.  However unreal these reality programmes may be, however manufactured or synthetic, it’s their connection with real time that justifies the reality tag (just as news is best when it’s breaking and sport is best when the result is  unknown).

Audiences like verisimilitude, even if they don’t know what it means.

And there’s Bazalgette’s fourth type of live TV.  And that’s actually ALL TV programmes.

When you watch a recorded programme with other people – either with you or online –  it becomes a live experience.   Even a period drama, where the story is pre-ordained and pre-recorded (and even given away by an annoying arse who should know better), it has become something happening right now.  When you respond to it – and not just by tweeting, but talking or shouting about it in the room- you are making it live.

Anyway.  So there’s that.

But what if LIVE, competes with LIFE?

What are we to make of how NBC is covering the Olympics for domestic audiences?  Rather than showing the opening ceremony and many Olympics events live, when most of their viewers are at work, it has been recording them and showing them ‘as live’ later in the evening.  This sounds weird.  Yes, it means that it becomes the centre-piece of a prime-time schedule, but it also turns a one-off global live event into a recording, like all the other programmes.  It sounds like the USA once again not getting the concept of international.  And it also seems that NBC has made a ruthless calculation of how they can best maximise revenues, and have chosen that option rather than looking to please those viewers who want live sport.  The commercial-obsessed, profit-gouging bastids!

Times of day matters

A lovely way to enjoy TV – with other people. (It’s a stock photo of people watching Television together and is available to buy from the good people at shutterstock)

But also, I believe time of day matters.  We don’t always expect to watch programmes live in the way that Bazalgette described in his first three types.  People in the UK don’t watch a new American drama at the same time as it airs in America, in the middle of our night.  Yes, the crucial plot details can be found on-line, but we choose to avoid them because we want to watch it fresh, usually when they are scheduled, but sometimes when we choose.  Many TV programmes work best at certain times.  They just do.  It feels like a special occasion.  Our lives follow daily rhythms (in terms of sleep and meals and work and personal relationships), and TV programmes fit into these, and vice versa.  We can watch the programmes together with others when it’s more fun.  Especially national sports.

A national celebration enjoyed together

And there’s something else.  The Olympics are a big opportunity for national flag-waving, and while we get a lot of that in the UK with our most popular sports, the Americans don’t.  American football, baseball, and basketball barely have an international component. There’s a bit of it with golf (The Ryder Cup…) and tennis, but barely.  Second, the Americans seem to have a work ethic that would make it difficult to watch the events.  So if they show them live, it would please the audiences who don’t work 9-5, while ignoring ‘hard-working families’ (and viewing AT work isn’t even measured).

A lovely way to support your team… with other people. It also works in front of a TV

There’s a concept in physics of entrainment, in which two rhythms become synchronised – such as the way that a morning alarm clock encourages our social rhythm (getting to work…) to fit the circadian rhythms that drive the times that we sleep and wake.  NBC have opted to fit the rhythms of the Olympics games into the rhythms of their viewers’ lives, when they are at home, when they are together, and when they are wanting to watch TV.  It forces the fan to avoid the scores – which isn’t easy when social media give away the scores – but why not?  If sports fans want a special game they can play themselves, how about the not-hearing-the-score-before-the-match-is-shown game – it can be fun!

Well done NBC

So where are we…. actually, I like what NBC are doing.  If sport is that great (and the Olympics are), then it doesn’t always need to be seen as it happens, if that jeopardises the size of the audience …it’s not theatre, in other words, it’s cinema.   Or rather, it’s television.  If showing it live means that the audience for America’s biggest international sports event is a fraction of what it is when its recorded and shown as live, then perhaps that’s wrong.

What’s a better audience – a small audience of sports fans sitting at home on their own or stealing guilty glances at a video stream at work – or a large national occasion with families enjoying it all together, cheering the team on?  Which is really more lively?  NBC’s strategy may be the only one which will help them to make a profit, after losing $200+ million last time, but I also think it’s the most appropriate and audience-friendly option.

Underworld, who provided much of the music at the opening ceremony once entreated us to ‘Choose Life‘.  I think NBC have chosen life over live.



What do YOU want.

I want it LIVE.  And I want it in the evening.  Is that an option?

No.  Unless some sort of entrainment is possible.


The Likely Lads trying to avoid a football score.  It wasn’t even easy in the 1970s


  1. Naomi Bradford says

    Jeremy, I have enjoyed these last few little blogs. Reminded me of the age old ‘appointment to view’ and how important that was in the sales pitch when selling TV spots years ago!! I think the ‘Live’ experience is far more important and have enjoyed just that whilst on holiday with the family. Yes, we have actually given in and watched some television despite being on our vacation. That said we have only watched what we have planned to as a family and made an ‘appointment to view’; the closing ceremony on Sunday being a great example, we debated, argued, sang along, slagged off Jessie J and had an all round entertaining time…..It waas a truly ‘Live’ experience. p.s it wasn’t live in the true sense of the word – we came to it an hour later after we got in from a yummy dinner by the sea
    So this said I am with NBC. I like the idea of coming together and truly enjoying the experience, a bit like Mum and I do with Radio 4 Women’s Hour. Maybe old fashioned but what’s wrong with that?

    • Naomi Bradford says

      And in true Bradford style I made a major error as I meant to say at the beginning of my a ‘Life’ experience is far more important 🙂 (If of course you can’t have both) x

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