December 22, 2004

NBC's Audience Conflict

The Associated Press ran this story a couple of weeks ago, breaking the news that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is investigating a decency complaint against NBC for its coverage of the 2004 Olympic Games.

At the time, the AP didn't know any specifics about the alleged indecency, or even how many complaints there had been. Well, it turns out that you can read the complaints here. All nine of them.

Of the nine, four refer specifically to the broadcast of the Opening Ceremony, and each one appears to be about something different. Two complaints refer to indecent commercials aired during the Olympics (specifically for Viagra and Cialis). Four refer to obscenities heard on the air, and two of those specifically mention women's volleyball. There was also a complaint about yet another racy profile of U.S. swimmer Amanda Beard.

Now, I probably spent about 30 minutes, total, watching NBC's coverage of the Olympics, and I didn't watch the Opening at all, so I didn't see or hear any of the "offending" material. Since I'm an adult, and I have cable, and I watch sports pretty regularly, I doubt that I would have taken much offense, anyway.

I know that we're only talking about a few nuts, out of tens of millions of viewers — NBC claims that the opening alone was viewed by 56 million people — but it sounds like the FCC is considering taking some action. What kind of standard is being applied here? I wonder how many complaints the FCC receives every Sunday about the NFL broadcast? If these people are really offended by an advertisement for Viagra, Michael Powell must get a lot of e-mail. And I hate to imagine how worked up they must get about beer commercials!

The Olympic television broadcast, of course, attracts a very broad spectrum of viewers. NBC and the other broadcasters, at least in North America, have worked very hard to expand that audience over the past twenty years. The strategy has worked so well that a significant fraction of today's Olympic audience is made up of people who don't particularly like sports, and don't watch other sporting events on TV. This is especially true of the Opening Ceremony, of course, since that doesn't have any sport content at all, but it carries over to the sporting events, too. The offending commercials, the Beard profile, and the uncensored expletives are surely nothing unusual for your average sports fan, but might be shocking to viewers more accustomed to the Family channel. To a certain extent, the networks have gotten themselves into a bit of a mess; maybe they can't continue to treat the Olympics like other big sporting events.

And here's another tip for viewers who are worried that they might accidentally witness something sexy at the Olympics: stay away from beach volleyball. I don't want to denigrate the athletic skills of the participants, which are formidable; and I don't particularly care if they're a bit foul-mouthed. But the official uniform guidelines and the bikini-clad cheerleaders should be a giveaway, folks — you and your family are not the target audience for this show.

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