Two Decades of the Olympics, Two Big Lessons About the Media

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A worker installs television wires at the London 2012 Olympic park. (Reuters)

Broadcast through commercial deals or available free online, the Olympics are a truly rare global media event: They focus the world's attention and condense its potential. And they even do the world one better after that. They make all that potential quantifiable.  

At the end of each Games, the International Olympic Committee issues a media report, detailing how the two weeks of sporting events have been covered. Here are three lessons from the last two decades's worth of those reports, focused on the Summer Games. (The much-smaller Winter Olympics don't have anywhere near the same size or coverage.)

1. There's much more coverage of the Games, overall, than there used to be.

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Or at least much more coverage of the Olympics. Between the 1992 Games and the 2008 Games, the number of hours of total coverage produced about the Olympics anywhere on the planet tripled. And it grew most steeply in between the 2000 and 2004 Games.

And this number is likely to grow. During these Games, the IOC itself offers eleven live streams of events to much of the world, and in the US, NBC adds to that with many more across the web and its cable channels. 

2. The sheer impact of the global web is a fairly recent development.

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Check this graph on the number of unique visitors to various official Olympic websites (and one US broadcaster):

The 2004 figure immediately seems anomalous -- it's why I've tossed in the 12 million USA-only NBC Olympics uniques, to represent the continued growth of the Olympics online. There's reason to think that Internet usage might have been down in 2004 -- its economic dominance was nowhere near as huge as in either 2000 or 2008 -- but it strikes me as unlikely it would've dropped. Then again, the early-2000s were boom years for cable television. The Olympic broadcast reports go out of their way to discuss the "multi-channel environment," a term we rarely hear anymore.

But what's noticeable is the huge leap from 2004 to 2008, and the expected leap again (a doubling!) from 2008 to now.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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