Booby Prize

NBC's Olympics site is no medal contender

Contrary to what it may seem, many Olympics fans are interested in more than Michael Phelps’s attempt to chase the record for most gold medals won without benefit of a cheesy porn mustache, or prepubescent girls doing tumbling runs. Every four years, hugely dramatic events play out in sports as arcane as weightlifting or Greco-Roman wrestling.

So it’s great news that NBC and its various (jargon alert!) platforms are offering an unprecedented amount of sports coverage—some 3,400 hours in all, according to the network’s Web site,, much of that tonnage online.

Unfortunately, that very site, which should be the best stop for deciphering the labyrinthine schedule of events, is not very user-friendly. For my money, the New York Times’s Web site is a far better option. Its Olympic Tracker is everything NBC’s site should be, but isn’t—clean, easy to decipher, and free of the invisible, insidious hand of marketing.

At NBC’s site, before I could check the starting times of today’s basketball games, I was forced to provide both my ZIP code and the name of the cable or satellite system on which I’m watching the Games. As my wince deepened, I was then asked to enter the call letters of my local affiliate here in Atlanta— the one on which I wouldn’t be watching basketball, as it happens, since much of the action is foisted off on one of NBC’s corporate cousins.

Finally—finally—I arrived at the pulldown schedule menus that allow you to hunt by your chosen sport, by date, or by channel. So far, so good. The basketball matchups and times were there, along with where to find them. But interspersed, seemingly at random, were capsule previews of what to find on other channels. In other words, the fact that the USA-Angola game would begin at 8AM EST and be carried only online was bracketed on NBC’s site by items reading “Multiple Sports” and telling me that soccer and tennis and water polo could be seen on USA and MSNBC.

Looking closer, I realized that the various “Mulitple Sports” notifications weren’t randomly placed—they were above and below the USA hoops game because they were on at the same time. In other words, someone looking specifically for the time and channel of the “Redeem Team” game is being asked to watch something else at 8AM.

Not only is this confusing, difficult to decipher, and displeasing to the eye, it would appear that NBC wants you to always be changing channels, looking for something else to watch—a dangerous tactic, given that a viewer bored by a USA blowout might easily get sidetracked by a Law And Order rerun or baseball highlights on SportsCenter and never come back.

Contrast this with the Times’s site (full disclosure—I contribute to the Times sports quarterly Play, but have nothing to do with its Olympic coverage). On a single screen, you can find your sport of choice, go to a specific date, and have the full day’s schedule pop up. It’s cleaner and far more visually appealing than the NBC monstrosity.

The Times version isn’t perfect—for one thing, not being in the business of promoting NBC’s business, it doesn’t list the channel broadcasting or streaming the event. And NBC beats the Times in having the results right there under the game listing, rather than another click away (although following the Times link gives you a full accounting of the action, rather than merely a one-line review).

But those are quibbles. The takeaway is that for all the billions NBC has spent on the Olympics, a humble effort by the Gray Lady offers a superior schedule-surfing experience. Who said that newspapers were dead?

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Robert Weintraub is the author of The House That Ruth Built. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and Slate, and a television writer/producer based in Atlanta.