Double Fault

One highlight of this past holiday weekend for me, was watching a four-and-a-half-hour sporting event that took nine hours to complete. It was an epic sports experience a tennis fan could spend an entire column defending as a worthy consideration for one of the greatest sports dramas of all time.

Live drama unfolds, intoxicating those who tune in to watch. There is never a guarantee the intensity level will smash through the roof, so when that happens, the buzz can be heard for days afterwards. And that's what the sports fan is addicted to -- the buzz of seeing and feeling the drama as it unfolds live, versus hearing about it afterwards.

Nothing can kill this drama quicker than knowing the outcome ahead of time -- and NBC got away with murder last week, with ESPN an accomplice. In doing so, both networks left fingerprints indicating they fail to understand -- or worse, choose to ignore -- how the consumption habits of their viewers have changed.

The Wimbledon Men's Semifinals were being televised on both networks last Friday. ESPN started its coverage in the morning with Nadal versus Schuettler. NBC followed with a noon (EST) broadcast of the Federer-Safin match-up.



As the Nadal match reached midway through the third set, I received a text from my nephew that Federer was up 3-0. How is this possible, I wondered. They would never start the match before the Nadal match finished. I quickly switched over to NBC -- and sure enough, Federer was off to a quick lead, and the grey skies Nadal had been playing under were now bright blue. As my feeling of being duped began to sink in, Ted Robinson of NBC reminded viewers to log on to for live scores highlights and analysis.

I (like other tennis fans) tuned in believing these semifinal matches were live -- and NBC actually reminded us to log on to find out both had already ended! I would love to know how many people changed the channel once they followed Ted Robinson's directions. I would also love to know why NBC (& ESPN) still think tape-delayed coverage, in today's media world dominated by instant access and digital video recorders, is the right approach.

The answer, of course, will be "eyeballs." By showing it on a tape delay, NBC can count on more households tuning in from the West Coast, which helps meet the rating goal ad rates are based upon. We talk a lot about delivering "engagement," but in this case, buyers bought nothing but numbers for their clients who appeared during Friday's matches.

Never mind that both matches could have been broadcast live at reasonable hours and those on the West Coast would have watched it live or used DVRs to do so. Never mind that we are no longer living in the 1970s, when access to results overseas was almost impossible to come by relative to how easily they're found today. Never mind that the words "taped" and "delay" are no longer warranted in the lexicon of today's media environment. What killed me, as a tennis fan, was how little mercy NBC and ESPN showed for the potential drama we tuned in for to unfold.

It just makes me wonder who's at the meeting when these kinds of decisions are made at traditional media companies -- and when those who understand today's media landscape will be allowed in the room.

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