David Zurawik

Sunday night Phelps 'special' shows NBC squeezing Olympics for every dollar

Does it feel as if NBC and its affiliates are getting a little greedy with its London coverage?

As one who has defended the network's right to try and make as much money as it can off the games in hopes of offsetting the $1.18 billion it paid for rights, I have to admit even I have been getting a little queasy as to the way  that long-held patterns of network prime-time programming and affiliate news are being bent in pursuit of extra profits.

For example, it looks as if the length of nightly Olympics coverage is now being determined by one thing: How many ads NBC can sell. Saturday night's prime-time coverage ended at 12:02 a.m. Sunday by my clock. That's when WBAL's local news started.

During that extra 62 minutes of coverage from 11 p.m. (when prime time traditionally ends and local news begins), it looked as if NBC was splitting sales with affiliates like Baltimore's WBAL -- an arrangement that would allow NBC to make more money with the extra 62 minutes, as well as the affiliate, which could get more in split sales for Olympics coverage than it might for local news.

Not that there's anything necessarily wrong with that, unless you don't want to stay up until midnight to see local news. Of course, you can always go to another channel.

I stayed with WBAL Saturday night, because I wanted to see all things Phelps on the Baltimore swimmer's last day of competition. Little did I know that in watching the interview host Bob Costas did with Phelps Saturday night, I had already essentially seen a Sunday night "special" NBC was packaging and promoting with its own title, "Michael Phelps: America's Golden Athlete," as if it were a stand- alone program.

It wasn't a stand-alone program. It was the first segment of the five-hour prime-time package of Olympic coverage Sunday night. It consisted of the "Golden Athlete" title used to break up about 28 minutes of the interview Costas did Saturday with Phelps, which I saw in part on Saturday night. They just served up different parts of the sausage -- as well as some that was refried from late Saturday.

NBC had promoted the "Golden Athlete"  show with media critics and reporters like me as a "special intimate look" at Phelps. Okay, there's some semantic wiggle room here. To me, that means a portrait of some kind, with history and analysis from several other sources, such as what CBS's  "60 Minutes" does when it highlights a celebrity from the world of sports. But maybe it means something else to NBC like an interview that aired in part the night before.

But the press release promised that in the Sunday show Phelps would talk about "the trials and tribulations with coach and mentor Bob Bowman" and "the influence of watching Michael Jordan's dominance and how it shaped his career as one of America's greatest athletes ever" among other matters.

He talked about neither in what aired Sunday under the heading "Michael Phelps: America's Golden Athlete." That's not a matter of semantics. And there is no wiggle room there.

Now, in fairness, I need to repeat what I have said many times: Costas is far and away the best interviewer going in sports. And the 28 minutes or so of Phelps and him that viewers saw Sunday was generally very good stuff. Costas did his part.

But it's not a prime-time stand-alone program by any definition," and NBC doesn't need to hype its coverage this way. It is hitting the ball out of the park when it comes to ratings. Don't get greedy, guys.

And speaking of greed, NBC News closed Sunday night with a mini-profile of a female Olympics weight lifter who said she had been living on $400 a month while training for the games in Arizona. The premise of the feature was that most athletes won't be able to cash in the way Phelps has on his medals -- some only do it for love of the sport, because there is no big market for what they do.

Only just as the feature was coming to the end with the weight lifter starting to sum up her experience, the story was abruptly interrupted for an Audi A4 ad. The ad then abruptly stopped after a few seconds, and Brian Williams said goodnight.

At first, I thought it was a network mistake, and I wondered why Williams chose not to acknowledge it. But then, when the news ended, I saw the ad start up again, and at the end, saw that it was an ad for the Audi dealers of Maryland, which means the fault was with WBAL, not the network.

The industry term: WBAL "clipped" the network. That means it cut network content short to try and play an ad that it was getting paid for.

Clip job, or mistake? You make the call. But NBC and its affiliates need to calm down. The money's rolling in, and the public is calming down about having its on-demand expectations frustrated. But don't get greedy and start shoving your priorities too blatantly in the audience's face -- or ill will might linger long after the games end.