You know who has had a rough few days?  NBC.  What should have been a joyful return to Olympics coverage – which tends to overwhelm all other U.S. television programming for 2+ weeks –instead saw the Peacock Network being roundly criticized.  And no, not for some questionable personnel decisions, but for showing high-interest events on tape delay, hours after the results were reported elsewhere.

But wait, isn’t this the same approach that NBC used from Beijing in 2008 and Athens in 2004?  The thing is, we now have a substantially reduced tolerance for delayed programming.  “Breaking news” on CNN or Reuters lags the real-time, on-site updates we receive from citizen-tweeters in the midst of earthquakes, war zones, political caucuses, and…the Olympics.

If you’re NBC you have justify the $2.2 billion you spent on rights fees (for Winter 2010 and Summer 2012) and satisfy your sponsors by providing eyeballs in prime time.  But there are so many tweets and other real-time updates coming in from attendees in London and those watching in European time zones that they don’t even bother to use the “spoiler alert” term.

So how should NBC respond?  It’s probably too late to change their operating and revenue models for these Olympics.  They’ll have to tweak some things on the fly – maybe offer live transmission of various events early in the day with prime time recaps that include interviews with athletes and other exclusive content that is not available during the day.  One thing is for sure – this type of response from NBC Digital exec Vicki Schiller is not helpful:

When looking toward the next round of Olympics – really, all live, televised events that are viewed across multiple time zones and will capture attention from a very large group of people – what lessons should NBC and the other networks consider?  How do they satisfy sponsors while meeting the expectations of real-time content delivery?

I can foresee an option where viewers are able to order a custom Olympics channel that would allow viewers to buy the content they want and consume it whenever they’re ready, be that while it’s happening live or held for family viewing in the evening.  Advertising can be served up specifically for that viewer, and an extra benefit for advertisers is that they’d get to learn much more about those who choose to view, for instance, the basketball events, or cycling, or dressage, etc.  If I led a network I’d put a bunch of smart people in a conference room with some bagels, M&Ms and a pot of coffee and tell them they cannot leave until they figure this thing out.

In the meantime NBC’s best bet to weather this feedback is for the games themselves to produce storylines that capture everyone’s imagination.  It happens in every Olympiad.  And sometimes it’s discussed for years to come.