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Monday, July 16, 2012

Bad Ideas from the '90s: NBC's Summer Olympics Triplecast

Posted By on Mon, Jul 16, 2012 at 6:30 AM

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The Olympics are coming! I know this because Harry Shearer talks about the growing boondoggle that is London 2012 every week on his radio program, Le Show. Otherwise, I might not be aware that it was happening. I don't follow sports, and as a result, I only ever really learn about it through osmosis. I wouldn't have given much thought at all to the 2010 Winter Olympics if not for The Colbert Report, and I was mostly aware of the 1992 Summer Olympics because of the news -- and comedy -- about NBC's Olympics Triplecast.

Twenty years ago, people watched the Olympics on television. (If memory serves, those televisions were steam-powered.) NBC held the American broadcasting rights, and someone there had the idea of not just covering it on the network, but also providing three different live simultaneous feeds on Pay-Per-View. Thus, the Triplecast was born ... and already dying.

One of the peculiar things about Olympics broadcasting is that it's never actually a moneymaker for a given network. Heck, they're lucky if they break even. Kinda like the Super Bowl, it's all about the promotion: NBC knows/hopes lots of people are going to watch, so it's seen as a great opportunity to promote their regular shows.

About two minutes out of every hour of NBC's 1992 network coverage (which doesn't really sound like much) were given over to promoting shows like Seinfeld, Blossom, and the newly launched Tonight Show with Jay Leno. In the end, NBC lost $30-40 million on their network coverage, and another $50-60 million on the Triplecast. Plus, it just made them look dumb. Legendary network honcho Brandon Tartikoff, who had left NBC the year before, once joked that he was whispering "Triplecast" to the peacock on the cover of his memoir The Last Great Ride.

A joint venture with Cablevision (feel free to confuse it with Kabletown!), the Triplecast was deemed a failure pretty early on. How early on? On July 20, 1992, Communications Daily ran a story headlined "NBC May Break Even on Olympics, But Triplecast Is Faltering." On July 25, the opening ceremonies were held. That's how early on.

Pretty much everything that could go wrong did go wrong -- not enough people subscribing, technical issues for people who did sign up, the New York City Consumer Affairs Department charging NBC and Cablevision with deceptive advertising, and general bad blood flowing in all directions. The cause wasn't helped much by the promos, like this one from April 5, 1992, perhaps because they overestimated how much the average viewer dreams of being an executive producer when they grow up.

On June 26, David Letterman -- not yet moved to CBS, but less of a fan of NBC than ever -- treated the Triplecast with the respect it deserved. And why not? What were they going to do to him, not give him the Tonight Show? (The audio was in better sync in 1992.)

It probably also didn't help that people with the right kind of satellite systems could watch it for free. I remember watching a few minutes out of curiosity on my girlfriend's father's satellite hookup, which I also used (much more enthusiastically) to watch the premiere of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine a week before it aired. Looking back on it now, that may not have been strictly legal.

But as simply a means of delivering as much hawt Olympics action as possible, some feel that the Triplecast ultimately did what it was intended to do. The real problem may well have been that it was ahead of its time, and NBC repeated the experiment more successfully, and on a smaller scale, with the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Unsurprisingly, this time around it's all about the Internet. Their promise: "All 32 sports. All 302 events. All live."

Good luck with that, guys.

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Sherilyn Connelly is a San Francisco-based writer. She also curates and hosts Bad Movie Night at The Dark Room, every Sunday at 8pm.

Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF (follow Sherilyn Connelly on Twitter at @sherilyn) and like us on Facebook.

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