07/31/2012 04:07 EDT | Updated 09/30/2012 05:12 EDT

NBC Olympics coverage sparks American outrage despite sky-high ratings

WASHINGTON - In a nation bitterly divided along political lines less than four months before a presidential election, one issue is passionately bringing together all of America this week — anger at NBC for its time-delayed coverage of London's Summer Olympic Games.

"Hey NBC, thank you for uniting the country," right-wing pundit Erick Erickson wrote on Twitter, the social media site that has itself become a crucial player in the NBC outrage.

"Everybody thinks your coverage of the Olympics sucks this year."

Venting spleen about NBC, indeed, has almost become its own Olympic sport as Americans on Twitter and beyond fume about the fact that they're not seeing their athletes win medals until hours after the action has already taken place.

What's worse, thanks to living in a digital information age with a 24/7 news cycle, they're often learning about the results in real time — sometimes from NBC itself.

The elimination of champion U.S. gymnast Jordyn Wieber from the all-around competition, for example, was big news long before it was shown in prime time on Sunday night.

NBC news anchor Brian Williams has also divulged the results of Olympic showdowns before they've been broadcast.

The network has also been vilified for heavily editing the opening ceremonies of the Games. Instead of showing a dance performance that some said was a tribute to London terrorism victims, NBC broadcast a Ryan Seacrest interview with swimmer Michael Phelps.

And while NBC has directed online viewers to live-streaming on its website, users are complaining about delays and glitches as they try to watch unedited events in real time. The service also requires a subscription to a cable provider, and so those without cable are out of luck.

The Twitter hashtag #NBCfail has been a wildly popular one for days, with outrage and ridicule in abundance — as well as love for the CBC by ex-pats and others familiar with Canada's public broadcaster, even though the Games are airing on rival CTV this year.

"Health care is better in Canada & so is CBC Sports. I'm taking a bus to Canada to watch the 2012 games. Who's with me?" asked Massachusetts sports fan Teddy Kechris.

A D.C. sports fan got it right: "Thank you CTV for livestreaming the Olympics. Womans Gymnastics is rocking. Final rotation now. Sorry to the US people stuck with #nbcfail."

A Twitter wag started up an account entitled NBCDelayed, with a plethora of tweets along these lines: "BREAKING: Roman Emperor Theodosius bans Olympic Games, NBC delay to catch up shortly."

Although Americans are flocking to Twitter to convey their dismay, the social media network itself was also in hot water for temporarily suspending the account of an American-based British journalist who directed his peeved followers to the corporate email account of an NBC executive.

The move earned Twitter — which has partnered with NBC on the Games — sharp criticism from various journalism watchdogs, including the Poynter Institute.

"Surely this runs against everything your company is supposed to represent?" Adams wrote in an open letter to Twitter in The Independent on Tuesday. "And surely it completely undermines Twitter's entire raison d'etre, corporate ethos, etc? "

Later Tuesday, Adams was back in action on the social media site, saying he'd been reinstated by Twitter after the "complainant" apparently withdrew the original complaint.

As for NBC, executives at the network have reportedly been stung by the criticism — but also puzzled, since the ratings for the Games are through the roof, regardless of the time delays.

Nielsen says 36 million people watched Sunday night's NBC coverage, the biggest audience for the second night of a summer Olympics held outside of the U.S. since they began airing in 1960.

An average of 35.8 million people tuned in for each of the first three nights. That's the best first weekend for any Olympics in history.

On Tuesday, one NBC executive was unapologetic.

"As programmers, we are charged to manage the business. And this is a business. It's not everyone's inalienable right to get whatever they want," Mark Lazarus, the network's sports chairman, said in an interview with Sports Business Journal.

"We are charged with making smart decisions for our company, for our shareholders and to present the product the way we believe is best."

Nonetheless, some tech-savvy Americans have been turning to proxy servers to watch BBC and CTV coverage.

The BBC is providing 24 live channels of sporting events on its website, and access is free. Trouble is, sports fan have to log onto the site from a British IP address.

Enter proxy servers or virtual private networks — services that spoof a user's IP address to make it appear as though they're in another country. Some U.S.-based services are reporting huge spikes in customers since the Olympics started.

Some websites — and among them — are even providing their readers with step-by-step instructions on how to hook up with a proxy server that will allow sports fans to watch the Games in real time.

"In short, NBC is failing to deliver suitable coverage in a connected age. If you don't want the Internet (or the morning newspaper, in some cases) to spoil everything, here's how to get access to the official (and excellent) BBC live streams," Lifehacker writes in the introduction to its guide.

But one marketing expert said he thinks the online outrage is nothing but a tempest in a teapot, given NBC's ratings.

"I don't think they've botched anything," Joel Whalen, a professor at Chicago's DePaul University and a one-time broadcast producer, said in an interview.

"We're living in a world of time-shifting, when people consume information and entertainment when they want it. The drama and the stories behind the competition are what people really want, and they're obviously forgiving any lapses in time.

"On Twitter, people try to get attention, they try to get a stir, but it's not always very representative of how most people feel."