A few random thoughts related to the Olympics:
400 Implosion for U.S.
For the first time since WWII (excepting 1980), the U.S. will not medal in the men's 400 meters. From 1968-2008, U.S. athletes won 23 of the 30 medals, all but one gold (1976), and swept the medals 4 times. A combination of factors played in to the result. LaShawn Merritt, the defending gold medalist, tweaked his hamstring and dropped out of a heat. NCAA champion and Trials runner-up, Tony McQuay, who ran a 44.49 at the U.S. Trials, did not make the finals with a 45.3 in the semis.
NBC's Intransitive Prime Time Coverage
The nightly prime time coverage is hard to figure. It's part "Today Show" with extensive "special interest" segments and interviews. In fact, the last few nights, the first hour has been dominated by this. Ok, I get the idea that they aren't directing the coverage toward sports junkies. They show a ton of gymnastics and swimming -- I get that also in terms of demographic targets. The focus tends to be on U.S. athletes and select others (especially British athletes). Obvious enough. Lots of women's beach volleyball -- more than obvious. However, they show only the final lap of the 10,000 meters (and a few seconds afterward) of an exciting last few laps of the race in which a highly popular Brit (Mo Farrah) wins gold and Galen Rupp (who trains with him) wins the first US men's medal in the event since 1964. They show about 10 throws from the men's shot put with Bronze medalist Reese Hoffa from the U.S. Alright, these decisions seem to fit with the whole "Today" show vibe, but, in contrast, NBC airs practically every prelim heat for the 100, 400, 400 hurdles, 1500 along with almost every prelim heat in swimming with a U.S. swimmer ... Who is making these decisions ... Harold and Kumar?
Although I "get" the Today-like coverage, I think they miss it. What's my evidence? I have my own test audience. Myself -- a middle-aged male sports junkie and TSE contributor, one middle-aged female, and two females in the 16-25 demographic all of whom are interested in sports and like the Olympics but are not big sports watchers. We all like an interesting story here or there. Our exact preferences for specific sports are not identical, but, in general, we like watching competition, especially "finals." In fact, the quote from my daughters is "heats are boring." As a junkie, I could watch 5 rounds of heats, but I largely agree with her. It's amazing how much competition that ABC worked in the telecast "back in the day" -- lots of gymnastics (not just U.S.), lots of swimming (finals), lots of track and field (finals mainly), but also a wide variety of other stuff ranging from boxing, horse jumping, volleyball, water polo, kayaking, and others while still finding time for the personal interest stuff.
Yes, there are economists out there who not only assume but take as axiomatic that such decisions are not merely trying to max profits or revenues, but do so with little or no error. No doubt, TV execs care about audiences, because they matter for negotiating the next contract. However, the long term nature of these contracts combined with typical organizational agency issues leads to a lot of input from marketing/production personnel who can work in their own "artistic" elements even if it diminishes revenues somewhat (I have a paper on this regarding movies with a couple of colleagues).
P.S. I meant to add that, possibly, viewership is just relatively insensitive to the composition of the coverage, which grants the production personnel a lot room to indulge their artistic or personal preferences. I'm just grateful for access in other forms today versus in the past.
I had also intended to mention the odd scheduling of the PGA Championship. It runs up against the final weekend of the Olympics. It's possible that in this remote-control, channel switching era, the Olympics serves as a complement to golf viewership. I would have thought they would be substitutes, but then again, twenty years ago I would have thought that casinos all over the U.S. would serve as substitutes for Vegas rather than as a complement in the form of a type of minor league systems.