In Defense of NBC: There Are Two Olympics

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It's not the network's fault; it's just that the Internet is the ultimate spoiler.

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This weekend, attendees at London's Olympic events were asked to avoid sending non-urgent text messages and tweets during those events -- because the resulting overload to data networks was compromising the television coverage of those events.

That seems like an apt metaphor for an Olympics that is pitting not just athlete against athlete, but also screen against screen. There are, actually, two versions of the Games this year. There are the events as we see them on TV, highly produced and heavily narrative and ad-filled and time-delayed; and then there are the events as they play out online, through live blogs and live tweets and athletes' Instagrams and full, nearly real-time recaps. These two versions of the Olympics are the same thing only in the sense that, say, quiche and custard are the same: They take the same basic ingredient and, through cooking them differently, create two completely separate products.

It's hard not to read some future-of-television lessons into those Two Olympics. NBC took flak this weekend for its time-shifting policies -- for what TechCrunch writer Billy Gallagher called a "dumb, outdated" strategy and what media critic Jeff Jarvis decried as a business model "built on imprisonment." The network was criticized, basically, for turning an event into a production. Not only did NBC carve up the Games' Opening Ceremonies into almost comedically short, ad-friendly bits, but it also omitted Danny Boyle's tribute to the victims of London's 7/7 terrorist attack -- under the logic that the tribute "wasn't tailored to a U.S. audience." And while the network is complementing its edited television coverage with relatively raw and real-time streaming, both online and through apps, that coverage is available only to those who are cable subscribers. (And its reliability, as swim fans discovered on Saturday, has been choppy.) 

Consumers, as consumers are wont to do, have been venting their frustration about that. On Twitter, the hashtag #NBCfail has served as a boisterous gathering ground for complaints against NBC's handling of the Olympics in general. And the parody account @NBCDelayed sprang up to mock the network's time-shifting impulse with such "updates" as "BREAKING: Mark Spitz wins gold in 100m freestyle" and "BREAKING: Orville and Wilbur Wright's machine flies."

These are funny, but they're not terribly fair. Olympics broadcasts have almost always been tape-delayed, and the exceptions to that "always" have come, as far as the U.S. is concerned, only when the Games themselves have taken place in a States-friendly time zone. (And even then, given overlapping events at the Olympics venue themselves, time-shifting is inevitable.) You could say that NBC is being retrograde in its production of the Olympics, if you wanted to; then again, in the U.S., Friday night's sliced-and-diced event was the most watched Opening Ceremonies ever, Nielsen has said -- for Summer or Winter Games. Which is to say, you can criticize NBC if you want to, but NBC will not be terribly bothered by your criticisms.

What's different in these Games isn't the time-shifting itself; it's that time-shifted coverage is no longer the only coverage available to us. "Real time" is now a default option in a way that it wasn't back in 1996 -- or even, given the rise of Internet connections, in 2008 or 2010. That London 2012 is the first real "Social Media Olympics" is a cliche because it's true: We consumers are experiencing these Games not just on our couches, but in our cars and in our offices and in our city buses and in our neighborhood Applebee's and in any other locations we choose, because the point of our connected mobile devices and the point of the Internet overall is the utility of omnipresent access. We're experiencing the Games not -- or not merely -- as a media event, but as a social event. And we're experiencing them, crucially, not just as entertainment, but as information.

In that, we're experiencing the Games just as we do so many other cultural events. The world of social viewing -- the world of Twitter and Facebook and GetGlue -- is also a world of disaggregated viewing, in which the facts of an event are teased away from the narrative of that event. Consumers' constant connection means that the death of [name withheld] on Mad Men and the loss of Michael Phelps in the Olympic pool and the surprise defeat of Jordyn Wieber in the Olympic gym are not just aspects of their respective spectacles, but also standalone facts -- data points that can have a life of their own beyond their narrative contexts. 

And that leads to new tensions when it comes to entertainment itself -- because entertainment, going forward, will be participating in this universe of social data points. Take, for example, the world of traditionally "pure" entertainment -- of movies, of TV shows -- and the debate it's been hosting about the responsibilities we consumers owe each other when it comes to time-shifted viewing. Is it fair for me, here in DC, to tweet about the unexpected death of [name withheld for anti-spoiling purposes] as it airs on Mad Men? Or is that an affront to West Coast viewers, who aren't scheduled to be shocked by that development for another three hours? And what courtesies are owed to iTunes or DVR viewers, who might not do their Mad Men watching until later in the week? What about to those viewers who catch up with shows months or years after they've originally aired? At what point is "spoiling" just "talking"?

These are the same questions NBC is dealing with, on an amplified scale. The tension we're seeing in the London Games -- the NBC backlash, the cord-cutters' anger -- may seem like a matter of television versus the Internet, of established medium versus upstart. But it's also a tension of time: a matter of the new alchemy between the immediate and the evergreen. NBC is treating the Olympics as entertainment; the Olympics, however, is also a news event. Much of its entertainment value derives, directly, from the information value of its individual events. The Internet is the ultimate spoiler, and TV's time-delayed production allows it ample space to do its spoiling. 

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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