Delayed Olympic coverage irks AFN viewers

Michael Phelps of the United States on his way to winning the men's 100 meter butterfly at the 2012 Summer Games in London, England, on Aug. 3, 2012. Viewers are complaining about AFN's broadcast schedule of the Olympic games, which has forced some to wait until after midnight to catch the feats of Olympians such as Phelps and Usain Bolt.


By JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 8, 2012

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — Michael Phelps concluding his record-setting Olympic career and Usain Bolt blowing away the competition on the track are among the highlights so far of the 2012 Summer Olympics broadcast on AFN Europe.

But if you happen to be following the Olympics on AFN Europe, you may have missed the signature moments, unless your schedule allows for very late-night viewing. Many of AFN Europe’s viewers — a potential audience of up to 365,000 military and family members, civilians, retirees and State Department workers throughout Europe, Southwest Asia and North Africa — had to wait until after midnight to catch the feats of Phelps, Bolt and other athletes throughout nearly two weeks of Olympic coverage.

By the end of the Games on Sunday, AFN forecasts it will have aired 746 hours of the London Olympics on several channels, AFN officials said this week.

But only about 50 percent of the coverage has been live from London due to the broadcast rights AFN has through NBC, which has the exclusive U.S. rights to air the Games and has tape delayed a number of events to show during prime time on the East Coast, AFN officials said.

Although London is only an hour behind Central Europe time and 3.5 hours behind Afghanistan, the tape delay has meant that many of the Games’ most anticipated events have aired past midnight on AFN.

Viewers are complaining. As of Wednesday, AFN Europe had received about 70 complaints from viewers, including military members and contractors in Afghanistan, by email, phone calls, online survey forms and Facebook postings, said George Smith, AFN Europe operations manager.

“I cannot believe AFN did not broadcast the Track and Field event last night,” read a post onAFN Europe’s Facebook page Monday, a day after Bolt won gold in the men’s 100-meter track and field final. “It was only the greatest and most hyped event of the Olympics. AFN had volleyball, Hockey and tennis, while the 100m Mens Finals were going on.”

A July 27 post complained about not being able to watch the opening ceremonies live: “I don’t understand how hard it is to watch the Olympics live when I live in Europe … why must I watch it on a German channel … thank you for your caring support to put it in English at 1:30 am for Soldiers living in Europe … crazy its not like the Olympics comes every 4 years or anything.”

Most complaints have been similarly worded, Smith said. People are saying: “ ‘We understand that you are getting the feed from NBC. But we’re thinking, gee, we’re in the same part of the world. Why can’t we get a live feed?’ ” he said. “They want their Olympic coverage live.”

AFN officials said the network is contractually bound by Defense Department regulations to carry a feed from a U.S. provider. NBC has exclusive broadcast rights in the U.S. and is providing its Olympic coverage to AFN for no charge, AFN officials said.

For the London games, it wasn’t possible to get an exception to the DOD regulation or seek additional coverage through European broadcasters, said Larry Sichter, chief of affiliate relations at the AFN Broadcast Center in Riverside, Calif.

AFN has an agreement with the International Olympic Committee and NBC “to use NBC’s coverage,” Sichter said. “We’re taking it all as we get it from NBC.

“We’re very proud to be able to bring the Olympics to our global audience,” Sichter said.

AFN’s mandate is “to show the audience the same kind of coverage they would expect to get back home,” Sichter said. “We reflect American broadcasting. The audience back home doesn’t see that global coverage.”

Many European countries are airing the Olympics on public broadcasting networks, including in the Games’ host country, where public broadcaster BBC is providing about 2,500 hours of live coverage on 24 channels, according to BBC’s Web site.

NBC struck a $2.2 billion deal with the IOC in 2003 for exclusive U.S. rights to the London Games and to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, according to The Associated Press. Its ratings are up over the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, but the network’s choice of tape delaying certain events also has frustrated viewers stateside, who would prefer to watch the action as it happens, The Associated Press reported.

Smith said AFN Europe viewers have asked why AFN can’t record some of the tape-delayed events from NBC and air them the next day during Europe’s prime time.

Sichter said, “We don’t have the channel capacity to do that. We’re trying to enable all of our fans to see all of their favorite programs. We don’t want to displace other viewers who may be non-sports viewers.”