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Lessons From Rio: The Message Matters

I don’t usually like to wrap a post around current events, because we so often see that done badly. But with NBC’s coverage of the 2016 Olympics getting so much criticism, this lesson has been screaming at me. You may have noticed it, as well.

First, let’s acknowledge the mechanical aspect of the critiques: For any of you who haven’t made the effort to focus your communications on the right-this-minute, NBC is busy demonstrating how you’re going to become irrelevant as a result. Their broadcast TV viewership is down significantly from past Olympics for multiple reasons, and a big one is that more of us are just watching the events live on our computers. Obviously, this is possible in the Western Hemisphere because the time zone works out in our favor this time. I suspect my friends in Australia are depending more on tape delay than those of us here, but it’s a lesson regardless for anyone trying to communicate breaking news. Your audience will know before you tell them.

Now, in fairness, I think NBC actually understands that, and that may be why they have worked so hard to “package” the events on their broadcasts. They want to add to the story, give us a behind-the-scenes look, shape the narrative, since they know that many of us will already know the actual winners and losers before we watch.

And bless their hearts, we’ve been happy to let them know every time they’ve gotten it wrong. Chunked up gymnastics and swimming in weird ways that made us stay up late late to see a result we knew at 4p? We’re not happy about it. Didn’t show Simone Manuel’s gold medal ceremony live, and instead showed tape-delayed coverage of other results we already knew? Ridiculous! Pushed all “minor” sports (the fun of the Olympics for many people) to cable channels fewer people have, in favor of all-swim, all-gym, all-track, all the time on the broadcast flagship—and even worse, made it crazy-hard to sort out when we’d be able to see what on which channel? What the heck?!

In their efforts to deal with the instantaneous nature of breaking news today, NBC has badly garbled the message that their audience wanted to hear. So yes, you have to figure out how to deal with your audience’s significant choices of information sources. You have to assume that they have many ways to get the info. But in your efforts to add value and stay relevant, make sure you really understand the message your audience wants to hear.

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