On Monday night in London—Monday afternoon in the United States—17-year-old Missy Franklin won the 100-meter backstroke to grab her first Olympic gold medal. Hours later, the world’s last defender of tape-delayed sporting events was pretending the past was in the future. “Coming up, how good can Missy Franklin be tonight?” Dan Hicks asked at 9:42 p.m. eastern. We had our answer a few seconds later, via a Today promo that showed Franklin embracing her parents. “When you’re 17 years old and win your first gold medal, there’s nobody you’d rather share it with,” the commercial explained, reveling in the story that NBC had been so zealously withholding.
This was a case in which NBC’s economic incentives smashed into each other at ludicrous speeds, revealing the particles of commercial self-interest hidden inside every second of the network’s Olympic broadcasts. To boost the ratings of its morning show, NBC promoted a newly minted star who it had yet to mint as a star because it was trying to boost the ratings of its primetime show. Watching the Olympics on a half-day delay is terrible for two reasons: You’re deprived of the joy of sharing a global event with the rest of the globe, and you have to live in fear of overhearing the results before you can see them with your own eyes. With its commercial screw-up, NBC pulled off the amazing feat of ruining the event it had already ruined. Worst of all, it alienated the very people who’d bought in to its profit-maximizing scheme by cutting themselves off from all non-Bob-Costas-hosted media.
I knew about Franklin’s big win this afternoon. So did millions of other news hounds and Olympics obsessives. The only people who were harmed by NBC’s flub tonight were the poor suckers who had played by the peacock’s rules. It’s the suckers who pile up the ratings points that pay the network’s bills, and the network pays them back by treating them like an ATM rather than an audience. It’s time to rise up, suckers. A request for the last one out the door: Will you please tell Bob Costas that Missy Franklin won the 100-meter backstroke?