Olympics on United States television

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The Olympic Games (Summer and Winter) have been televised in the United States since 1960. It has become one of the most popular programs on USA television every four and then two years. The Olympics is exclusively broadcast on NBC and NBCUniversal's TV Networks in the United States.



The first telecast of the Olympics on American TV was from the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California. It was shown on CBS. During the games, officials asked Tony Verna, one of the members of the production staff, if it could use its videotape equipment to determine whether or not a slalom skier missed a gate. Verna then returned to CBS headquarters in New York City and developed the first instant replay system, which debuted at the Army–Navy football game in 1963.

Later that year, CBS showed the 1960 Summer Olympics from Rome. The network showed about 20 hours of coverage of track and field, swimming, and other sports. Because communications satellites, which would have provided direct transmissions between the United States and Italy, were not yet available, production staff members flew footage from Rome to CBS headquarters in New York for later telecast. Jim McKay, then a relatively unknown radio and TV personality, was the host.[1]

In 1964, a different network showed the Winter Games: ABC. Roone Arledge won broadcast rights for his network and began a relationship with the Olympics that would last over two decades. The program used many of the same production staff from ABC's Wide World of Sports, as well as the same host, McKay, who moved to ABC in 1961. The following October, NBC showed the 1964 Summer Olympics from Tokyo, marking its Olympic TV debut. This time, NBC used the Syncom 3 satellite for direct broadcasts, with the opening ceremonies being broadcast live and in color (the first live color television program ever transmitted by satellite from overseas to the United States; the opening and closing ceremonies were the only portions of NBC's 1964 coverage from Tokyo seen in color). In 1968, ABC showed both the Winter Games and the Summer Games; both of which were (with the exception of a handful of events) broadcast in color.


In 1972, NBC showed the Winter Games from Sapporo, Japan, then ABC returned to carry the Summer Games in Munich, Germany. It was during the Summer Games that terrorists attacked the Olympic Village and killed 11 Israeli athletes. Although Chris Schenkel was the actual host of the Games that year, Arledge assigned the story to McKay largely because he was a local news anchor in Baltimore, Maryland prior to joining CBS (and later ABC). McKay was joined on set by ABC news correspondent (and former and future evening news anchor) Peter Jennings, and coverage continued for many hours until the outcome was known. McKay later won an Emmy Award for his coverage.[2]

By the time the 1976 edition came around, McKay was now installed at the host, a role he would play throughout the 1970s and '80s.


ABC aired the 1980 Winter Olympics, both the 1984 Winter and Summer Games, and the 1988 Winter Olympics. After that, the network, at the insistence of new owner Capital Cities Communications (much to the chagrin of Roone Arledge's successor at ABC Sports, Dennis Swanson), opted not to bid for the rights to show any future Games.

NBC had won the U.S. broadcast rights for the 1980 Summer Olympics, but when the United States Olympic Committee kept U.S. athletes home to honor the boycott announced by President Jimmy Carter, the telecasts were canceled. In the end, what had been 150 hours of scheduled coverage, shrunk to practically nothing. Highlights were fed to local NBC stations for use on local newscasts. Many affiliates however, refused to show the Olympic highlights on their local news. They also refused to clear airtime for what little coverage NBC did present.

NBC then bid for, and won, the rights to show the 1988 Summer Olympics. Network officials convinced the organizers in Seoul to stage most of its gold-medal finals in the afternoon, which is primetime of the previous night in the U.S. Bryant Gumbel was the host that year.



Just as his mentor Roone Arledge had before, Dick Ebersol, who took over NBC Sports in 1989, decided to make the Olympics a staple of his network's sports television schedule. NBC continued its Summer Games coverage into the decade, with both the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona and the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. Previously hosting late night coverage in Seoul, Bob Costas made his debut, as primetime host, in Barcelona. It is a role that he held through the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.

1992 Olympics Triplecast[edit]

NBC's 1992 bid cost $401 million thinking that the rival networks would bid at least $400 million. In order to defray costs of airing the games, the network teamed up with Cablevision for the Triplecast. The service consisted of red, white, and blue channels that allowed the viewer to watch anything they wanted even before it aired in the network's primetime telecast. However, the service was a dismal failure losing $100 million and had only 200,000 subscribers. In addition, the main network's coverage was cannibalized to the extent it seemed that the main coverage was overproduced and that viewers knew some results about 10 hours before they were aired over the air on NBC. For Atlanta, NBC had no supplemental cable coverage.

1996 Olympic Park Bombing[edit]

And as with Arledge in Munich, Ebersol had to deal with breaking news during the Atlanta Games. During the Centennial Olympic Park bombing in 1996, NBC suspended its coverage of a volleyball game and broadcast the news for several hours commercial-free. Like ABC's 1972 Munich coverage, the main primetime host didn't cover the bombing. That role went to both Hannah Storm and Jim Lampley for the first half-hour before turning coverage over to NBC Nightly News host Tom Brokaw. Toward the end of the second hour of coverage, NBC had an exclusive as Atlanta TV affiliate WXIA was in the process of interviewing Janet Evans during the bombing.


As for the Winter Games, CBS had a similar sweep of coverage in the U.S. during the decade; it showed all three contests (1992, 1994, and 1998). The 1994 Games saw the nights with the highest ratings in the history of American Olympic telecasts, as a result of the scandal in which associates of Tonya Harding attacked Nancy Kerrigan and the media frenzy that followed, as well as Dan Jansen's speed skating gold medal win. The short program on February 23 is, as of 2008, the sixth-highest rated primetime TV program in American history. It had a rating of 48.5 and a share of 64. The long program two days later had a rating of 44.1 and another 64 share; it ranks 32nd.[3] Each telecast had a different primetime host(s): Paula Zahn and Tim McCarver in 1992, Greg Gumbel in 1994, and Jim Nantz in 1998.

As with NBC, CBS decided that it needed help to defray the increasing costs of broadcast rights. CBS's Winter Games coverage was shared with TNT, which aired events under the promotional slogan "The ultimate daytime drama." Jim Lampley was the host all three times. While CBS had the top choice of events and had their own feed, TNT had to do with the world feed and aired their own events which was some sports CBS would not touch including Curling in 1998.

The Late Show with David Letterman[edit]

Also supplementing CBS's coverage was David Letterman as his show was Olympic themed in both 1994 and 1998 while the network aired the Olympics. A centerpiece of that coverage was nightly segments with his Mom Dorothy Letterman who was on site at both the Lillehammer and Nagano Olympics.


Coverage in the first decade of the 21st century revolved around two major storylines:

  • NBC became the sole U.S. rights holder for the Olympic Games for the entire decade and beyond. The network could rightly boast of being "America's Olympic Network" as it made the longest and most expensive commitment ever since the Olympics were first presented on TV. For the 1996 Summer Games, and all Games from 2000 to 2008, NBC paid a total of $3.5 billion, mostly to the International Olympic Committee but also to the USOC and local organizers. To extend rights to the 2010 Winter Olympics and 2012 Summer Olympics, NBC then gave up another $2.2 billion.[4]
  • The rise of various media platforms extended the reach and availability of Games coverage. NBC returned to supplemental cable/satellite coverage in 2000, with some events on CNBC and MSNBC. In 2004, it added USA Network, Bravo, and Telemundo, all of which parent company NBC Universal had acquired earlier in the decade. Finally, in 2008, events were streamed live for the first time on the Internet through the website NBCOlympics.com. (Also in 2008, Oxygen replaced Bravo as a supplemental network, and NBC launched high-definition channels dedicated to the basketball and soccer competitions.)

As was the case with Seoul in 1988, NBC convinced the organizers of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics to stage many of their major events during the late morning and early afternoon hours, which translated to live coverage during prime time in the United States.


With Comcast taking over NBCUniversal many people thought they would not bid for the television rights for the next Olympics, after losing money from the 2010 Olympics. Also Dick Ebersol left as NBC sports chairman, under whom NBC overbid the last two Olympics. However it was announced on June 6, 2011 that NBCUniversal had won the television rights for the 2014, 2016, 2018, and 2020 Olympics, beating out ESPN/ABC and Fox. The entire package for the rights was $4.38 billion, making it the most expensive television rights deal in Olympic history. NBC paid $775 million for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and $1.23 billion for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. NBC delayed the 2016 Opening Ceremony by an hour. Also NBC paid $963 million for the 2018 Winter Olympics to be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea and $1.45 billion for the 2020 Summer Olympics, which will be held in Tokyo, Japan. NBC has announced that it will begin airing all of the events live either on TV or the internet.[5][6]

Thanks to favorable time differences, much of NBC's coverage from Vancouver (2010 Winter Games) was live; as will be most of NBC's prime-time coverage of the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. It is commonly believed in the television industry that NBC will likewise push the organizers of the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang to schedule major events (such as alpine skiing, figure skating, and the championship game in men's hockey) during the late morning and early afternoon hours to allow live prime-time broadcasts to the East Coast of the United States.

Rights fees[edit]

Olympics Fees paid Ref
1996–2008 $3.5 billion
2010, 2012 $2.2 billion
2014 $775 million
2016 $1.23 billion
2018 $963 million
2020 $1.45 billion

TV viewership[edit]

1988 South Korea 22.7m 18.3m
1992 Spain 21.6m 21.4m
1996 United States 39.8m 34.1m
2000 Australia 27.3m 16.7m
2004 Greece 25.4m 19.6m
2008 China 34.9m 27.8m [8]
2012 United Kingdom 40.7m 31.0m [9]
2016 Brazil 16.9m [10]


Of course, there are some complaints about Olympic coverage on USA TV. Perhaps the most often heard is the insistence that some events be shown on disk- or tape delay rather than live, which is what most sports fans seem to prefer. Even if sports are shown live to some parts of the country, it may remain delayed in others, especially in the Pacific Time Zone. NBC has explained that primetime coverage of select events, regardless of when they actually occur, is designed to maximize the total viewing audience.

Some examples of broadcast delay include:

  • The 1980 Miracle on Ice, which ABC showed in primetime, about three hours after it actually took place. (The Americans' gold medal-clinching game against Finland was aired live, despite a start time of 11am EST on a Sunday morning. All US hockey games in Winter Olympics since 1988 have been shown live, and since 1992, in full.)
  • The relay race in 1984 in which Carl Lewis won his fourth gold medal.
  • In 1996, much of the Artistic Gymnastics competition at the Atlanta Olympics was held in the afternoon, and was shown by NBC three to four hours after the competition ended.
  • Nearly the entire 2000 schedule from Sydney, Australia, in some cases by nearly a day. (The only live telecast was the men's basketball final, which was shown live only after fans objected to the delayed coverage of earlier games.)
  • For Pacific and Mountain Time Zone viewers, most of the 2010 Winter Olympics coverage was on delay, despite that the games were held in the Pacific Time Zone. As a result, viewers in Bellingham, Washington couldn't watch NBC's live coverage as it aired on the east coast despite the fact that they are just over 50 miles away from Vancouver.
    • Also, viewers in most of the Mountain time zone and all of the Pacific time zone couldn't watch live prime-time coverage of the 2002 Winter Olympics despite the fact many of the prime-time events took place around the Salt Lake City, Utah area. However, KSL-TV was allowed to air NBC's prime-time coverage live.
  • The opening ceremony for the 2012 London Games, which NBC refused to air (or even stream on the internet) live, choosing instead to delay for US audiences, and during which broadcast chose to cut away from important segments of the performance to air a prerecorded interview with US swimmer Michael Phelps.[11]

The broadcast delay practice even for major events has become increasingly frustrating with viewers in recent times due to the increased usage of social networking and Web sites (including the official Olympic site and NBC's Olympic website) posting results in real time.[12] As a result, these practices has spawned outrage across the internet and even raising concerns from politicians.[13]

Anecdotal, if not official, evidence indicates that some USA viewers in border cities have decided to turn away from NBC coverage to watch events live on such stations as CBET in Windsor, Ontario, Canada and XEWT in Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico. Nearly all Olympic coverage broadcast in Canada (traditionally CBC, CTV for the 2010 Vancouver Games) and Mexico (Televisa) is live regardless of venue or time difference. Often, events shown live during fringe hours in Canada and Mexico will be rebroadcast there in prime time.

In a related note, networks not part of the Olympic coverage, even including NBC News, are given very restrictive policies on showing highlights. For example, ESPN can show only a total of eight minutes of highlights per day, and must essentially wait until the next day to show any of it. (Reportedly, the only reason it can even show highlights at all is the deal that sent Al Michaels to NBC Sunday Night Football in 2006.)

Some decisions as far as what events to show also seem to create questions. For example, NBC got the Beijing organizers to hold swimming, gymnastics, and beach volleyball in the morning and early afternoon local time, U.S. prime time in 2008 (the next morning in Beijing). Such prominent sports as track and field and basketball were not moved to the mornings. The network cited Phelps' potential for winning a record eight gold medals at a single Olympics (which he did), as well as strong U.S. teams in gymnastics and beach volleyball favored to win medals, along with demographics in those sports that favor females.[citation needed]

One other concern among some critics is the emphasis on covering USA athletes ahead of all others on the US telecasts. Frank Deford of Sports Illustrated noticed this in 1984, when the Games were held in Los Angeles, California.[14] After winning that year's decathlon gold medal, Daley Thompson of Great Britain wore a T-shirt that read, "America, thanks for the Olympics, but what about the TV coverage?" Again, NBC has said that the emphasis on US athletes and teams is what the public has demanded.[citation needed] To that end, a minor controversy erupted during the 1984 Games when it was discovered that televisions inside the Olympic Villages were showing the US ABC Network feed and not the world feed.[15] It should be noted that any country's Olympic coverage usually has a major emphasis on sports where the country the network is broadcasting to has the best shot at medals.[16] Also, in 2008, USA Network called itself "home of the United States Olympic Team" in event promos and commercial breaks.

NBC's focus on U.S. athletes has been the subject of a series of studies which have shown NBC places a heavier emphasis on U.S. athletes during the Summer Games than during the Winter Games.[17][18] When the NBC 2014 primetime Olympic broadcast was compared to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's 2014 primetime Olympic broadcast, however, it was determined that CBC placed more emphasis, by a statistically significant margin, on Canadian athletes than NBC placed on U.S. athletes.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Maraniss, David (2008). Rome 1960: The Olympics that Changed the World. New York: Simon and Schuster. 
  2. ^ The Tragedy of the Munich Games (DVD). ABC Sports. 2002. 
  3. ^ "All-Time Top Rated TV Programs". ESPN Sports Almanac. 2008. p. 602. 
  4. ^ "Television Rights". ESPN Sports Almanac. 2008. p. 609. 
  5. ^ Bill Gorman (2011-06-07). "NBC Wins TV Rights For 4 More Olympic Games, All Events Will Be Live Either On TV Or Internet". TV by the Numbers. Retrieved 2011-06-07. 
  6. ^ Anthony Crupi (2011-06-07). "Update: NBC Bids $4.38 Billion for Olympic Gold". Ad Week. Retrieved 2011-06-07. 
  7. ^ "HISTORICAL TV RATINGS FOR PAST OLYMPICS BROADCASTS", Nielsen, August 5, 2008. Accessed August 22, 2016
  8. ^ "2008 OLYMPICS U.S. PRIMETIME DAILY TV RATINGS", August 27, 2008.
  9. ^ "Olympics 2012: NBC finds vindication in opening ceremony record", L.A. Times, July 28, 2012.
  10. ^ http://variety.com/2016/tv/news/tv-ratings-olympics-closing-ceremony-ratings-down-1201842009/
  11. ^ Scott Collins (2012-07-27). "NBC ripped for not livestreaming opening ceremony of Olympics". Los Angeles Times. 
  12. ^ "Tape Delay an Olympic Dilemma". newser. 2010-02-11. 
  13. ^ "Even Senators Hated NBC Universal's Olympic Coverage". techdirt. 2010-03-01. 
  14. ^ Deford, Frank (1984-08-13). "Cheer, Cheer, Cheer for the Home Team". Sports Illustrated. Retrieved 2008-08-14. 
  15. ^ Ueberroth, Peter. Made in America, 1985. William Morrow & Company Inc. 105 Madison Ave., New York, NY. pp. 358–359. 
  16. ^ Gorman, Bill (2008-08-25). "Watching the Olympics Outside the US". TV By The Numbers. Retrieved 2008-09-03. 
  17. ^ Angelini, Billings & MacArthur (2012). "The Nationalistic Revolution Will Be Televised: The 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games on NBC" (PDF). 
  18. ^ Billings, Angelini, MacArthur, Smith & Vincent (2014). "Fanfare for the American: NBC's Prime-time broadcast of the 2012 London Olympiad". 
  19. ^ Angelini, MacArthur, Smith & Billings (2015). "Nationalism in the United States and Canadian primetime broadcast coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics". 

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