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In a Flyover State: The Customer Is NOT Always Right

I want a lot of things. I want people to stop killing each other. I want a presidential election cycle in which we actually learn things about the candidates, instead of being scare-mongered by silliness. I want journalism to catch its breath, calm down and worry about being right once in a while instead of just being first.

And then there are the really important things. I want hair on my head. I want to be taller than a middle infielder. I want to drink Shirley Temples—with cherries proudly displayed on top—in public without fear of persecution.

But guess what? None of the above things is ever going to happen, no matter how much I complain or think I deserve it. Kind of like the people complaining about the way NBC is handling the Olympics, specifically how the network is delaying the television broadcasts of certain events to play them in primetime, when they are most valuable.

When I put something on Twitter about this last week, I caught some serious blowback. One common theme I heard was that NBC doesn’t care about the viewers.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. They don’t. And they shouldn’t. NBC is not running a charity to make people happy at home, they are running a business. And it is a business that has 1.18 billion reasons to sell as many Olympics ads as possible, by any means necessary, no matter what the Twitter echo chamber says. After that $223 million bath NBC took last time they showed the Olympics, the fact that Steve Burke is even muttering the words “break even” is incredible.

Here’s the bottom line about the bottom line: NBC is right. Hell, they are so right that even one of their most bitter longtime rivals—CBS chief Leslie Moonves—came out and praised them last week to B&C. Les defending NBC is like me putting on a Yankees cap and going to a Celine Dion concert: normally you would wonder if a family member is being held ransom.

The battling of opinion over the Olympics is actually part of a bigger issue—the whole idea that people want to see what they want, when they want and where they want. Newspapers played along and gave away everything for free online. That worked out great.

The television business originally followed suit in many ways, flooding the Web with their most valued goods, and more recently, taking the short-term fix of that Netflix and Amazon coin and working through the TV Everywhere models.

Thanks to that, companies such as Hulu and Netflix are (or sometimes are, or were) lauded as the Next Great Thing. But some skeptics will tell you that Hulu was born on third base and acts like it hit a triple thanks to all that top-tier content. And Wall Street is not exactly having a love affair these days with Netflix (or some other high profi le Silicon Valley media-related outlets).

What I’m getting at here is that of course viewers want everything when they want it. I get the argument that if top-tier content owners don’t make their stuff available in this way, viewers will steal it or go elsewhere, with increasingly professional content popping up in places like those YouTube channels. But my take is, so what? Well, more accurately, and with less drama, the correct answer is somewhere in the middle. I’ve said it a million times in this space, and I will say it again: providers of 30- and 60-minute top-tier content still get their bread buttered on old-fashioned television. Yes, you do have to work in concert with the new ways consumers want to see content, but that doesn’t mean you just open the doors and let everyone in. When you have to report those financials every quarter, it is just not realistic.

NBC boldly, and correctly, has found the right balance between online and television— the hybrid model that studios and networks have to be pursuing to position themselves for the future without killing the golden goose. I get it: The world is changing fast. But that doesn’t mean you just murder your business today. Try getting a local newspaper in New Orleans on a Monday morning this fall.

NBC’s Olympics strategy may not be popular on Twitter, but it will be on Wall Street. And those are the only people any publicly traded company really does—and should— care about.

E-mail comments to and follow him on Twitter: @BCBenGrossman