WBAL's weird 'reporting' of Phelps' flop highlights controversial NBC Olympics issues

Phelps after Saturday's failure

If viewers to WBAL's 6 p.m. news were confused, they had the right to be. Outside of a graphic that appeared onscreen during the sports portion of the news, the only mention of Michael Phelps' failure to win a medal in his first event Saturday came in a graphic shown onscreen during Gerry Sandusky's sports portion of the show.

And Sandusky warned viewers to look away before the news of Phelps' fourth-place finish was shown on the screen if they didn't want to know. Sandusky never verbally reported the results, according to WBAL General Manager Dan Joerres.

A weird way to do the news -- especially a story this big to Baltimore viewers?

You bet, especially since elsewhere in the 6 p.m. news, reporters and anchors were acting as if the results would not be known until prime time Saturday night when WBAL, as an affiliate of NBC, would be showing Phelps in action.

What NBC would actually be showing is videotape of Phelps losing earlier in the day. NBC, which paid $1.18 billion for exclusive rights, did not show Phelps' defeat live on Saturday despite having six channels on which to show Olympics events.

WBAL's handling of Phelps' failure highlights a large media issue that has plagued NBC and every network and its affiliates that have ever covered games that appeared outside of the U.S. in time zones at odds with prime time here (8 p.m. to 11 p.m.). The problem: How to handle results that happened earlier in the day and have been widely reported.

Jorres, who said earlier in the week that WBAL would be reporting Olympics results on all of its media platforms as they happened, and then relying on the exclusive images of the events provided by NBC to attract a large prime time audience, defended his station's awkward handling of the results Saturday on its newscast.

"We reported the results," he said referring to the graphic in a telephone interview after the 6 p.m. newscast Saturday. "But you have to respect that some people don't want to know. And that's what Gerry was trying to respect" by not verbalizing the results.

When asked if there was a network, station or company policy in place to handle the Olympics this way, Joerres said there was not. He said WBAL's handling of results could evolve or change over the course of the next two weeks.

"This was just Gerry trying to have some fun with it while respecting that some people don't want to know," he said. "Our new media guys did the same kind of thing, putting out a message that  Phelps had competed and telling people to 'click here' if they wanted to see the results."

The concept Joerres articulated is essentially one of treating news as spoilers. It's as if the news of Phelps' loss is the same as me as a TV critic not telling you in a preview of  "Mad Men"  that Don Draper has a new girlfriend.

I'm sorry, but I cannot think of news as a spoiler, but then with my commitment to information as the lifeblood of a democracy, I am probably the wrong guy to ask.

Bottom line, I think both NBC Sports and affiliates like WBAL are going to generate some ill will at the very least if they don't rethink the policy.

In the world of new and social media, consumers are insulted and angered when they can't information and images when they want them. And NBC is telling them, you can know what happened from a million different sources on the media landscape, but if you want to see it, you have to come to Mother NBC in prime time."

Even if some people would accept that, few can stomach watching reporters, anchors and correspondents onscreen acting like what everyone knows as already having happened in the world didn't already happen.

Not only was that happening on WBAL, the announcers on NBC were doing the same at poolside at 8:05 p.m. Saturday acting like they couldn't wait for the Phelps event that already happened hours earlier.

Affiliates like WBAL might change their news policy. After all, you mess with your news credibility, and you are messing with the soul of your station.

But I don't think NBC is going to change and show everything live as it happens -- no matter how intense the complaining gets -- especially from other media folks who are fired up with access envy. There is too much money involved. NBC needs to hit a prime-time number, and management is convinced this is the way to get it.

NBC Group Chairman Mark Lazarus showed how committed NBC is to the prime-time strategy in his comment on the record TV audience for opening ceremonies Friday night.

"This audience number for the London Opening Ceremony is a great early sign that our strategy of driving people to watch NBC in prime time is working." he said. "We look forward to the next 16 nights of compelling Olympic competition."

Let's see what he's saying a week from now.

But either way, two weeks from now, I think we are going to have a much better sense of how far we've come -- or not -- through new media to a more open flow of information.

Maybe information really does want to be free. But folks who can pay $1.18 billion to own some of it aren't going to give it away without a fight.

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