If you watched the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony on the TV in the UK – congratulations, you had one of the best seats in the house. You may not have been in the stadium, but at least you weren’t trying to enjoy Danny Boyle’s Stratford spectacular from the Americas.
You see, I believed that being in California (a state that has produced more Olympians than most others, in a country that will top the London 2012 medal table) would be no hindrance to my Olympiad consumption – how wrong I was.
Despite the Olympics aspiring to be an event that brings the nations of the world together in celebration of sporting achievement, when the opening ceremony kicked off in London at 9pm (1pm PCT) there was no sign of Ken Branagh or fireworks on any of the 85 channels in my Malibu hotel room.
Twitter was alive with commentary as Glastonbury Tor oversaw an industrial revolution and giant rings fused above the east London sky to an outmoded indie soundtrack – but televisually, I was still in the dark ages, I could not join in the debate.
NBC, the official and exclusive US Olympic broadcaster were screening an interview between Ellen DeGeneres and Stifler from American Pie (now at its 72nd sequel), whilst CNN (who did not have the rights to live coverage) were desperately trying to scoop the network with the occasional still image from the event and the promise of “telling you first” who lit the Olympic flame.
It felt like early 90s coverage of a pay-per-view boxing match, rather than the greatest show on earth – the difference being, there was no way of buying in to the excitement, even if I’d wanted to.
Online, there was also a distinct lack of footage because of complex rights issues, meaning only those with the technical know how and inclination to put in place complex proxy server settings could watch the event live via the BBC feed.
And so, after reading what happened in a series of dispatches of a 140 characters or fewer and occasionally dipping into newspaper live blogs I resigned myself to having missed the live TV event of the year.
By the time the show had finished in London, NBC were beginning to talk Olympics, but instead of showing the ceremony, they were interviewing people purporting to be British (they sounded American to me) in an English theme pub in Santa Monica.
Eventually, at 3:30am UK time (7:30pm PCT), long after Paul McCartney had returned to his oxygen chamber, the NBC coverage began.
Now, of course the network has to make money, and prime time advertising is the way to do this – but NBC’s refusal to acknowledge the ceremony was happening during the day (and show it live before repeating it prime time) – and then the way in which they as good as pretended they were showing it “live” in the evening (“whilst you were away you missed team Djibouti “) was a bitter pill to swallow.
And once the ceremony did begin screening – you could see why the network had waited for prime time. The ad breaks (including many fiery political attacks from both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama on one another) came thick, fast and indiscriminately. During the alphabetical parade of nations there were five ad breaks before we even saw the Brazilian team – as you can imagine, it was a long night.
Yes, I’m British and we do things differently back home, but I was not the only one to find this delayed Olympiad frustrating. Indeed I struck up a few Twitter friendships with like minded Americans throughout the day who were just as perplexed by NBC’s Tweets telling us what was happening – but refusing to show us at the same time.
“If only the technology existed for NBC to illustrate these descriptive Tweets” said one user, perfectly summing up a collective online frustration.
Perhaps in days before the internet and social media this “as live” broadcasting was good enough for world events such as the Olympics – but frankly in 2012, it feels like American TV viewers have been denied the opportunity to share in the event with their cousins across the pond, and should rightfully feel a little short changed.