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How NBC Controls How You Watch The Olympics In The U.S.


Now, if you've been trying to watch the closing ceremonies or any other Olympic events from the U.S., you probably found your options are limited, very limited. My next guest says that's because of NBC's, quote, "hand-in-glove relationship" with the International Olympic Committee, though the term iron fist comes to mind. Andrew Zimbalist is an economics professor at Smith College and the author of many books on the Olympic Games. And he joins me now. Welcome.

ANDREW ZIMBALIST: Thank you. Good to be with you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So people may have noticed they can only watch the Olympics here in the United States on NBC, but the relationship between the two goes much deeper than might be expected, right?

ZIMBALIST: It's a long-term relationship. It goes back several decades. The NBC network has been the primary source of revenue for the IOC. The IOC uses 90% of its revenue to bolster up the National Olympic Committees and international sports federations. And it's that relationship between the National Olympic Committee and the international sports federations, NOC, that gives the IOC its power to host the Olympic Games. So NBC is at the root of the financial wherewithal by which the IOC operates.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And the way that they keep that relationship in line is that everyone who is not a so-called rights holder, like NBC, is extremely limited in what they can film or even record for sound. There are tons of rules.

ZIMBALIST: That's correct. And the IOC protects NBC's rights, as well as the rights of the other international broadcasters that signed deals with the IOC. And one of those restrictions that's particularly interesting now in the United States is that the athletes themselves are not allowed to post on social media video clips of their participation in the games. They can post still pictures, but they can't post video of live action.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, I mean, this past week, Jamaican sprinter Elaine Thompson-Herah was briefly blocked from Instagram after she posted videos of herself winning several races. The videos were then taken down. Let me repeat she was posting videos of herself winning a medal on her own social media. I mean, what kind of legal muscle are NBC and the IOC willing to exert to keep control over how people see the games?

ZIMBALIST: Well, it's a very interesting question that I don't think is fully resolved legally, at least not in the United States. Very recently, we've seen a series of lawsuits in the United States around NIL - or name, image and likeness rights - sometimes, called publicity rights, of college athletes. College athletes now are allowed to go to third parties such as a sneaker company and sign an endorsement contract and earn money. The NCAA, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, historically has prevented athletes from doing that. They said no, you're amateur athletes. You're students, and you can't earn money. The athletes in college now have those rights, but the Olympic athletes don't have those rights. So what the IOC has done is taken away publicity rights that are inherent to the athletes. Now, at the college level, we saw a variety of antitrust lawsuits that brought NIL rights to the college athletes. It's not unlikely that Olympic athletes are watching very closely. In fact, it was just last month, July 1, that college athletes got these NIL rights.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, NBC has potentially lost money on these games because viewership plunged.

ZIMBALIST: Viewership has plunged. They're going to have to do what they call make goods, giving the advertisers free time to advertise later on in the games or maybe to advertise during the World Series or during the football season in the fall. NBC has also had to lay out an enormous amount of money in order to accommodate the pandemic circumstances because they've had to find new locations and new venues to do their shooting and their editing. And, by the way, through their six channels and through the streaming opportunities, they're providing something, like, 3,000 hours of Olympic coverage. That amount of coverage is up about 15% since the Rio Games in 2016. So they're bringing us more and more. And as you point out, they're getting lower and lower ratings, which means less advertising revenue or the advertisers getting free advertising slots down the road.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what does it say to you?

ZIMBALIST: That one of the ways that this could be handled that might be more justifiable going forward is to have some of the more niche events actually available because the athletes themselves decide that they're going to put up their competitions, that NBC is trying to do too much. And the overall conception of how the games are brought to us needs to be reconsidered.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Professor Andrew Zimbalist of Smith College. Thank you very much.

ZIMBALIST: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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