When ESPN was bidding on the rights to air the 2014 and 2016 Olympics (rights they didn't end up winning), they made it clear that they would air everything live, as opposed to showing events on tape delay. "I don't think nonlive is sports fan-friendly," said ESPN executive vice-president of content John Skipper at the time, adding, "It's hard for me to imagine, in our culture, not showing events live." Say what you want about the way ESPN operates, but they had the right idea here: It's hard as a sports fan to comprehend watching an event on tape delay, especially in 2012, when we have access to up-to-the-second updates on any number of devices. Sports fans are wired to watch games as they happen — and to want the results as soon as possible. Sports are entertainment, but in this sense they fall under the umbrella of news as well.
Consider the MLB Network's decision to air the first two regular-season games of the year — games between the A's and Mariners that took place in Japan — on tape delay. The response after the first game aired was so negative that they changed course and aired the second of the two games live.
The idea of tape-delayed sports isn't specific to the Olympics, but NBC's coverage every two years is the highest-profile example of the practice. NBC has always treated the Olympics as something of a broadcast event, as opposed to a mere sporting competition. As far as NBC is concerned, the Olympics are like a two-week miniseries, filled with characters and story lines and loads of drama. It's why the most intriguing events are aired in prime time, regardless of whether they can air live during that time slot. NBC isn't trying to draw in the die-hard sports fan by doing this; they're going after the casual viewer.
This summer, NBC will still be airing things on tape delay in prime time, but at least they're throwing a bone to sports fans who want to follow Olympic sports the way they follow their favorite teams during the rest of the year: All 32 sporting events during the London Games this summer will be shown live on NBC's Olympics website, making good on a promise NBC made last year when it won the rights to the Olympics through 2020. (This is a change from the 2010 Vancouver Games when only hockey and curling were streamed live.) The one wrinkle: Certain events won't be archived until some time after they air in prime time, but that's not too terrible. Offering an event for on-demand viewing is still something of a bonus. Offering the ability to watch an event live — even if only online — is a necessity.