If all people can tweet about is Bob Costas' eye and Matt Lauer's beard, odds are NBC will take it.
That's not what the network wanted, obviously. It hadn't planned on Costas being sidelined by an eye infection or on Lauer substituting as the Winter Olympics' prime-time and late-night host Tuesday, Wednesday and again tonight (at the very least). Nor could anyone have guessed how many people would take delight in mocking Costas' blazingly red pupils, though odds are once Lauer was chosen, executives were prepared for Twitter protests about everything from his failure to shave to his failure to be Dan Patrick, Al Michaels, Rebecca Lowe or Lester Holt – to name a few of the alternate hosts you can find listed under the revived #NBCfail.
As you should expect from someone who has spent the last 17 years co-anchoring a live broadcast, Lauer was fine: A dependably professional presence both alone and when bantering with Mary Carillo or Cris Collinsworth. He's not a sportscaster, but he's spent years taking the Today show to the Olympics, so he's familiar with the sports and many of its athletes. This is not his first time down this particular half-pipe – and even if it were, it's not like the prime-time host is on air all that much.The truth is, whomever NBC chose, carping was going to follow. For the moment, Costas is irreplaceable, which is why, wisely, Lauer did not try to replace him. The on-air approach he took in his introduction Tuesday was that of a friend stepping in to help an ailing co-worker who has "been playing hurt" and needed some time off. That tone – with its implication that he was only there to keep the trains running – should lessen the volume of criticism he might have received had viewers seen his appearance as a tryout for future Games.
If viewers balk anyway, it's because of two problems Lauer can't fix: He comes with Today baggage attached, and he's not Costas. When it comes to Olympics, Costas is simply the best in the business, a likable personality, totally at ease in the job, who links a dry, self-deprecating wit to a depth of knowledge and a retained sense of wonder. A broadcaster like that you want back on the air as soon as his eyes will allow.
So it's no surprise that people have taken to Twitter to complain about his illness and his absence. And, at times, to complain about him, because no one is universally beloved in an Internet universe where someone is always complaining about something. But for NBC, the happy surprise is that all the various #NBCfail-tagged complaints still haven't reached a critical media mass, as they did during the London Olympics. Even then, the barrage was being loosed by a minority of viewers, but they were vocal enough to cause major embarrassment.
Instead, the hashtag of the moment is #SochiProblems, which bothers NBC not one whit. There are the usual rants from those who somehow expect a commercial broadcaster to behave like its government-funded counterparts in Britain and Canada. But overall, the griping is comparatively muted. And whatever gripes people have, they're watching, and in greater numbers than many expected given the time difference and the largely negative pre-Olympic coverage.
It could be, of course, that people are less upset simply because they're less interested in the Winter Olympics than they are in the Summer Games. But it could also be that NBC learned some lessons from those summer tweets and is doing something right.
At the top of any list of improvements is the increased availability of live coverage, which has always been a sticking point for many Olympic fans. More events are being aired live on NBC's cable outlets, and almost every event is streaming live online – even in marquee sports that were blacked out in London.
Some are unhappy that they need a cable or satellite subscription to watch the Internet feed, but some of what's being shown online is also airing on NBC-owned cable outlets, and that's a business the company has to protect. At any rate, from a fairness standpoint, why should you get something for free that others have to pay for? And no, "Because I want it" is not a good enough answer.
No matter how often you tweet it.