As thrilling as it was to watch the American women’s soccer team get golden revenge for last year’s World Cup or Michael Phelps become the most decorated Olympian in history, the most significant moments of this summer’s London Games had as much to do with the coverage as with the events.
Revelations rolled out almost daily. Twitter trends are often meaningless. Spoilers don’t bother most people, even in sports. Viewers are learning to use the Internet as a complement to, rather than replacement of, television.
And most commentators are really annoying.
That last observation might be an evergreen, but the others were something of a shock. Long-floundering NBC took a lot of early flak for spending so much (over $1 billion) on something that many predicted would benefit them so little. Criticism continued throughout the 17-day broadcast, but numbers do not lie — it was the most watched Olympics in decades.
And NBC did more than broadcast an international sporting event — it conducted a grand and sweeping media experiment that will have repercussions in programming and coverage for years to come.
Going in, things were looking bleak. The “Today"show had just replaced Ann Curry with Savannah Guthrie in hopes of recapturing its recently lost No. 1 ranking in the morning show ratings. The heavily advertised inclusion of Ryan Seacrest as a special correspondent struck many as cynical and more than slightly ridiculous.
The multilayered system of coverage — live Web streaming and NBC’s family of cable channels during the day with certain events held for prime time viewing — appeared not just complicated but greedy: We will show you the events you most want to see long after they have occurred because that’s how we make money.
From the moment the network preempted a portion of Danny Boyle’s elaborate opening ceremonies to shoehorn in a Seacrest interview with Phelps, the Twitter rage began. By the end of Day 1, if the social media was to be believed, the coverage was an unmitigated disaster, with American viewers howling their disappointment as they learned results from events that had not yet been televised.
Except that it wasn’t and they weren’t. Or at least not really.
While Twitter melted down, Americans quietly sat on their sofas and turned on the tube, happy to watch Phelps and the Fab Five do what they did, even if they had actually already done it hours ago. A record 38.7 million tuned in on that first Tuesday to watch Phelps and the women gymnasts get their previously reported gold.
The numbers were extraordinary and remained so: The first week saw a prime-time average of 32.2 million, three times the viewers for the other major networks combined, 11% higher than the previous Summer Olympics and the highest number for NBC in a decade.
So much for Twitter trends as an Idiot’s Guide to anything.
By Thursday, NBC had done its research, discovering that people who knew the results of an event were actually more likely to watch the tape-delayed telecast of the same event. In a time of two opposing digital forces — instant access versus the almighty DVR — the spoiler issue has become increasingly emotional.
NBC’s findings dovetailed perfectly with last year’s UC San Diego study, which found that knowing the end of a story actually enhances many people’s enjoyment. According to the network, two-thirds of those who knew the results of this race or that event said they would watch it in prime time anyway; people who had already seen the events via computer screen watched the prime-time version longer than those who didn’t.
That reveal is at least as big a game-changer as Phelps’ staggering necklace of medals. Not just for future Olympics coverage but for the entire television industry, which has spent the last decade trying to figure out how to reconfigure its formula as the new methods of delivery make it increasingly difficult to get an accurate picture of who’s watching what when.
At a time when access to just about anything is at our fingertips, showcasing content has become just as important as producing it. While delivering the Olympics live via other platforms, NBC used its prime-time coverage to curate the Games, to create an Olympic experience that both echoed the past — when families actually gathered ‘round the electronic hearth —and visualized the future, in which the entertainment value of televised theater is considered separately from the twists of its plot lines. Knowledge may be power, but it isn’t always the primary purpose of storytelling.
It wasn’t perfect. The choice of which events made the prime-time cut was often baffling — why so much cycling? and beach volleyball? — the hours stretched out with too much commentary, too many back-story asides, too many close-ups of those darn gymnasts.
But the shortcomings of craft are not as important as the long-term implications of intent: to give the viewers the best of both worlds.
If you wanted to see the event as it unfolded, you could; if you wanted to know what happened the moment it happened but didn’t have time to watch, you could do that too. But if you wanted to sit back with your family and your TV trays and focus on the moments in all their overanalyzed and stop-motion replay glory, you could do that too.
The London Games were good to the Americans; we won medals we hadn’t won in years and we conducted a grand media and sociological experiment with surprising results.
Did we nail a perfect 10? No. But then the way we score gymnastics has changed a lot too.