There's a war brewing at the Olympics, and it's not China versus the truth (although that is a lively tussle). No, the London Games are a battleground between the traditional forces of broadcasting and the social-media insurgents who represent the future of information technology. Supposed allies in a bright future of profit and information delivery are struggling for the soul of the Olympics.
In Canada, where virtually all events are broadcast live, the conflict has been muted. But the American network NBC has been unrepentant in its plan to embargo the highlights of the day's most important action, repackaging it later that night in a heavily edited form loaded with commercials to pay for the estimated $1-billion (U.S.) NBC gave the International Olympic Committee for the rights.
The rights include shutting down signals from outside the United States, to protect NBC's monopoly. Sometimes NBC has tripped on its own locked-down formula, showing a promo about Missy Franklin's gold medal for the next day's Today show, before the network had revealed the result to its audience.
NBC's attitude was set by its chairman, Mark Lazarus. "It's not everyone's inalienable right to get whatever they want," he told 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."
Those are fighting words in the age of instant-information gratification.
"Why watch a broadcast in the evening of an event that happened four hours ago when you already know the outcome because of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter or reading an online newspaper article?" Sidneyeve Matrix, a social-media expert at Queen's University, said. "Social media is changing viewing habits."
The Twitter world has launched its biggest assault against NBC and its decision to tape-delay events until later in the day. After its decision to delay broadcasting the opening ceremony, from midafternoon in North America to prime time, NBC made itself a target for those used to instant information in the era of social media.
Satiric sites such as @NBCDelayed were established and drew more than 30,000 followers in a week. "BREAKING: Senator Barack Obama elected first African-American President."
Individuals also heaped scorn on the network. "@NOTSportsCenter" "Ryan Lochte could cure cancer during a race & NBC would air it 6 hours later with the cure portion removed for a [Ryan] Seacrest interview #NBCFail."
Then there was @notlikenormal. "Dear United Kingdom, You can be our colonial masters again if you bring @BBC#Olympics coverage with you. Love, America #NBCfail."
Perhaps the most conspicuous example of the struggle between conventional and new media was the suspension of journalist Guy Adams's Twitter account after NBC complained that he'd tweeted the e-mail of the NBC executive in charge of the Olympics (a corporate address easily obtained from its own website). Followers of Twitter recognized that the often bawdy, subversive, libellous site was applying a new standard in suspending Adams's account.
For example, filmmaker Spike Lee, incensed about the Trayvon Moore shooting in Florida, erroneously tweeted a wrong address for George Zimmerman, the neighbourhood watch member accused of killing Moore. Lee's tweet targeted an innocent couple who were forced to leave their home as a result. Yet Lee's account was never suspended. Adams had his account restored, but he received no apology from NBC.
For all the outrage and satire of new media being denied their Olympic live fix, NBC has had the last laugh when it comes to ratings. The network has consistently set prime-time viewing records with its prepackaged formula. NBC's Tuesday night programming earned a 21.8 rating and a 35 share, the highest-rated night in any Summer Olympics since the 1996 Atlanta Games.
NBC's heavily edited broadcast of the opening ceremony drew a record 40.7 million viewers last Friday, topping the 1996 Atlanta Games (39.8 million), the 2008 Beijing Olympics (34.9 million) and the 2004 Athens Olympics (25.4 million). Across the online, mobile and tablet platforms, there have been 75 million total video streams, 34 million live streams (already more than the entire Beijing Olympics), 744 million page views, and 31.5 million unique users (web only).
After initial estimates that NBC could lose $200-million (U.S.) on the 2012 Games, it's now being estimated that the American broadcaster may break even if advertising sales continue so strongly.
Rubbing it in, NBC released polling that showed its delay policy might even be an incentive to watch.
"Two-thirds of people questioned in a survey Sunday said they watch the prime-time Olympics telecast even if they know the results ahead of time," Alan Wurtzel, NBC's chief researcher, said. "People who watched the events live earlier in the day via computer screen watched the tape-delayed broadcast 50 per cent longer than those who hadn't."
So has NBC won? It's probably too soon to declare winners.
"I think [the debate] reflects how segmented audiences are," Jesse Hirsch, chairman of Metaviews.ca, said. "There's still a large population that is not superconnected to social media and so is not impacted by the real-time nature of Twitter, etc. I'm not sure this approach is viable in the long term as computers and TVs continue to merge and TVs will have Twitter feeds instead of channel-based info-tickers.
"Nonetheless," Hirsch added, "there may still be a holdout of geezers who cling to their boob tube and are vulnerable to time-delay and canned programming. As long as enough advertisers want to go for that demographic, NBC can continue doing what they do."
Matrix said: "Social media is stealing away some of mystique of Olympic television spectatorship. You don't need to tune in to CTV's prime-time Olympic coverage to find out who won the gold medal in swimming or rowing. … TV broadcasters who spend hundreds of millions of dollars are legitimately concerned that Olympic audiences now have a wide range of sources to get their London Summer Games news fix."
It's clear that the predicted seamless marriage of old and new media by the 2012 Olympics has not materialized. CTV reports that 61 per cent of the traffic on the Olympic broadcast media consortium's digital platforms has come from mobile devices. That's more than five times the average 12 per cent of the web traffic for most Bell Media properties on mobile. As promising as the numbers sound, monetizing that gain is still a work in progress for both Canadian and American rights holders.
While both NBC and the Canadian consortium established chat sites to compete with Twitter and Facebook, the latter two were not challenged as the go-to sources for social networking.
That didn't stop CBC from bidding an estimated $75-million for the rights to both the 2014 and 2016 Olympics this week. NBC had earlier re-upped for all the Olympics through 2020 at a cost of $4.38-billion (U.S.). Both networks are looking at the opportunities in integrating their digital platforms even more profitably the next time around.
Having the rights to the next four Olympics, it's hard to see NBC changing its strategy of delaying news and information until prime time in North America after these profitable Games in London.
"We think we created the best experience," Lazurus said. "Frankly, I think all of the noise about Queen Elizabeth and Paul McCartney on social media and in the digital world helped build excitement for our prime-time show."
Delays shouldn't be as much of a problem for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro when the variance in time zones with Eastern North America will not exist. But the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia, will be eight hours ahead of Eastern time in North America, and the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea will have a 14-hour time lag.
Ironically, the Olympic component may be the only thing left in 2020 that looks like conventional broadcasting today. Many see the proliferation of Google, Netflix, Apple TV and the PVR generation rendering networks redundant in a few years. NBC's presence at the 2020 Olympics may be as a warehouse of content supplemented by some news and sports content.
Hirsch believes that as networks fade away, we will see new media leap into the rights acquisition game.
"I think a more likely scenario is that Google or Facebook or Microsoft or even Twitter might be in a position to pay for the broadcast rights and outbid an NBC," the chairman of Metaviews.ca said. "Or Comcast as the parent of NBC would be able to better integrate the content into its various properties. Something Bell says it will do but to date really hasn't.
"Given how rapidly the media industry is changing," he added, "the distinction between categories will dissolve just as fast as the distinction between screens and where and how you watch."