The PyeongChang Olympics and NBC Going 24/7: And the Attempt in 1964

Pyeongchang NBC logo

We live in a 24/7 always on world. When NBC delayed broadcast of premier sporting events at the Rio Olympics, so that they could present them during prime time in the evenings, their strategy backfired for many. After all, in today’s world, people can learn of the results instantly.

NBC recently announced that for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in early 2018, all broadcasts will be live, no matter the time in the US.

“That means social media won’t be ahead of the action in any time zone, and as a result, none of our viewers will have to wait for anything,” Jim Bell, president for NBC Olympics production and programming, said in a statement. “This is exciting news for the audience, the advertisers and our affiliates alike.”

Since South Korea will be 14 hours ahead of the East Coast of the United States, if an ice hockey match starts at 8pm in Korea, then New Yorkers can watch it real time, but they’ll have to be up at 6 am to do so. Of course, if you’re a big hockey fan, trying to avoid hearing the score for another 12 hours before watching it prime time would be a pain in the neck, if not impossible.

This may actually be ho hum news for most people.

But in 1964, the prospect of broadcasting the Tokyo Olympics live to other continents was an exciting thought.

NHK camerman 1964 Tokyo Olympics
NHK camerman at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics
Live broadcasts in 1964 were not new. The 1936 Berlin Olympics were shown live on German television. The 1960 Rome Olympics were the first to be broadcast live across Europe. But, according to John Slater of Western Carolina University, Japan wanted the 1964 Tokyo Olympics to be the first broadcast live to another continent.

Slater wrote in this abstract that members of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee wanted the Tokyo Games to be known as the Technology Games. And so they contacted the American government in Washington D. C. if they would be willing to adapt American communication satellites designed for telephone communications to relay television signals. American officials also thought it would be very cool to be the first Games to broadcast signals literally across the globe.

NHK, the Japanese Broadcasting Corporate, built a transmitter in Japan, and the US Navy made modifications to a communications facility in California, and NASA which operated the satellite Syncom II, moved its orbiting location from the Atlantic to the Pacific. And when they tested the ability to send visual and audio television signals from Japan to North America real time, it worked! But as Slater wrote, NBC, which owned the broadcast rights in the United States, got very defensive.

The U.S. Department of State coordinated the use of the necessary radio frequencies. The system worked, and the Communication Satellite Corporation offered to make satellite time available. Both CBC and the European Broadcasting Union signed up for an hour a day, at a cost of U.S. $150 a minute.

But NBC chose to protect its investment in exclusivity. It got hung up on NASA’s policy that programs sent via experimental satellites should be made freely available to all competing media. In the end, only the opening ceremonies were televised live in the United States, and then only in the East. During the competition itself, U.S. viewers had to wait to see next-day videotapes of the Games, while viewers in Canada and Europe got the full benefit of live coverage. The Canadians had embraced the new technology, while the U.S. broadcasters tried to fend it off as a threat to their commercial interests.

NBC got an earful for promising live broadcasts, but actually providing tape-delayed shows in the evenings.

But that was 1964. Today, on the eve of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, NBC will be giving sports fans immediate gratification.