business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Just two months after they ended, there’s a good chance you remember only two things about this year’s Olympic games.

First, that US swimmer Ryan Lochte did something strange at a Brazilian convenience store. And second, that you really, really hated the television coverage on NBC. I’m not going near the former issue, but as for the latter, there’s a lot to say and possibly something to learn about why today’s emerging competitive threats are so different and unsettling.

In many ways, NBC’s coverage was the most ambitious ever undertaken by the network that has pretty much owned the Olympics for decades. They used a large number of affiliated cable channels, allowing all of us to see an incredible number of hours and events.

And yet, the coverage disappointed. Too often events were shown well after the results were widely known and far too frequently the real drama of competition was drowned in endless backstories on the athletes. Sure, those stories are impressive, but there’s a point of saturation and we passed it.

I have learned that there is, in fact, another way.

(I recognize, by the way, that it may seem a little late in the game to be talking about Olympics coverage. But I only learned about the other way of covering the games when I spoke last week with a colleague in London.)

In the UK, the Olympics coverage was widely celebrated and not just because the local team did so surprisingly well. Rather it was because the BBC did everything NBC did not.

During the Olympics, the BBC both accepted and enabled the new world of consumer choice by letting viewers pretty much watch whatever they wanted and whenever they wanted. Every event was streamed into the BBC website as it happened.

Every event. As my English friend explained, if you had a cousin who was eliminated in the first judo match, you could easily find that video online and watch it. No sport and no athlete were deemed insignificant.

The BBC let viewers truly decide what and when they wanted to watch and everyone (according to my friend) cheered. NBC managed the experience and got quite a different response.

No doubt NBC spent countless hours and resources trying to determine the tastes of the American audience and that research led them to the schedule they gave us this summer. It could be easily argued that they did the best broadcasting job ever, providing more hours and more sports than any of us could have imagined years ago.

Only now it somehow feels wrong because the world - and our expectations - have changed.

I think this is both a powerful and unsettling lesson for all kinds of businesses, but most especially retail. Whether you agree or disagree with the phrase, retail does essentially serve as a purchasing agent for the shopper, offering products that serve the needs of the local population. Yes there are all kinds of kinks in the system, but for the most part that is how it works.

Amazon - just like the BBC during the Olympics - demonstrates the power of no limits, essentially providing everything all the time. There’s no doubt that an enormous percentage of Amazon’s limitless variety consists of items that rarely sell, but that’s not what matters. The customer is in charge and if they really want something odd - akin to that first round judo match - they can find it.

In turn, that means the challenge for retailers - just like for NBC - NBC - is to learn how to both explain and curate choices better than ever or figure out how to battle a competitor with no limits.

Winners will get gold medals. Losers, I'm afraid, will be largely forgotten.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available on Amazon by clicking here. And, his book "Business Rules!" is available from Amazon by clicking here.
KC's View: