Friday, January 25, 2013

What Do You Want For Nothing?

On Facebook this week I participated in a discussion about NBC Sports Network’s coverage of the Tour Down Under.  Most of the comments were pretty negative.  The biggest complaints were that the 30-minute highlight shows contain only a few minutes of actual race footage and that the shows air in the middle of the afternoon when many people are at work.  I can’t refute the first claim; NBC is spending too much time on prior-day recaps, rider interviews and course profiles.

But I have mixed feelings about the second claim.  True, the mid-afternoon broadcast is inconvenient for a lot of people, but who doesn’t have a DVR or VCR option?  Record the program and watch it when you get home … if you’re still interested.  As plugged into cycling news as I am, it would be impossible for me not to learn the outcome of the stage long before the broadcast.  That’s because NBC is showing highlights of each stage 14-17 hours after they actually occur.  If you watch the highlight show this afternoon, you’ll see the race that happened while you were getting ready for bed last night.

I have been watching the stages live thanks to streaming coverage on the Internet.   The picture quality isn’t as good as that of a cable TV broadcast, but I still get the Phil Liggett / Paul Sherwen / Robbie McEwen commentary.  And it all wraps up by about 10:30 p.m., which leads one to question why NBC doesn’t just air it in real time.  I suspect the answer is that cycling simply isn’t as popular with American audiences as NBC’s other live sports offerings, like hockey.  Would NBC have given us the Tour Down Under as a live broadcast if the NHL strike had continued?  I don’t know, but I am sure that it wouldn’t have given us each stage in its entirety.  Not even the Internet stream provides that.  Yesterday’s stage took a little more than 3 hours and finished, inevitably, in a bunch sprint.  If you saw the last 3 minutes, then you saw just about everything of interest.

Of course, in any bike race the decisive move can occur at any moment.  Sometimes a breakaway in the first kilometer succeeds.  But usually it doesn’t.  As fans, we know and accept that.  I’ve watched my share of boring bike races.  Moments of high drama are few and far between, but I keep watching because I’m looking at everything.  NBC knows that there aren’t many fans like me.  Most viewers are better served by a highlight show than by a live broadcast.  Or, at least, they’re better served by coverage that joins the race in progress, gives them highlights of earlier action, then takes them to the live finish.

Then there’s the question of American participation in the Tour Down Under.  Tim Duggan and Tyler Farrar were the only Americans to begin the race.  (Duggan broke his collarbone and dropped out of the race on Stage 3.)  Would NBC’s coverage be more robust if more Americans were in the race?  Does NBC assume that its American audience is not as interested when a race contains so few Americans … and no serious GC contender?  Difficult to say.  The Australian Open is also in progress and American audiences don’t seem to mind the absence of American men from the highest ranks of professional tennis.

But it’s not difficult to criticize NBC for a lack of information about its 2013 cycling schedule, now two weeks behind last year’s release date.  As the Tour Down Under approached, NBC mentioned it only sporadically on its website, on Facebook and on the air.  Next on the schedule are the tours of Qatar and Oman—races that will be over long before the broadcasts.  The Tour of Qatar will run Feb. 3-8, but the highlights won’t air until Feb. 17.  The Tour of Oman will run Feb. 11-16, but the highlights won’t air until March 3.  After that, who knows?  Paris-Nice begins on March 3, so maybe the Oman highlights will just be an hors d’oeuvre before we finally get some live coverage.

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