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What the Olympics Teach Us About the Rise of Social Media

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The 2012 Summer Olympics is the latest evidence that sports are immune to DVRs. Even when, interestingly, the network is effectively a DVR airing taped events. Since Friday’s tape-delayed debute of the opening ceremonies NBC has been catching social media heat for its decision not to carry those ceremonies and other events live on its family of networks. Yes, you can stream all the events live online, but a tiny fraction of sports fans are actually doing this.

(Raise your hand if you’ve been consuming the Olympics live online at the expense of on television. If you are, you’re an extreme, extreme minority).

Instead, every night, tens of millions of us are sitting down in front of our televisions — even when many of us know the outcome — and tuning in to the Olympics in record numbers.

I think the reason is simple — American society craves shared experiences. That’s because increasingly, our shared experiences are rare. How many of you watch a favorite television show live? I don’t. I can’t tell you the last time I watched one of my favorite shows as it aired live. I watch everything on my DVR. How many times have you had a conversation with a friend, a friend that you know watches the same show as you, and began it like this, “Have you seen the newest “Mad Men” yet?”

I guarantee you every single person reading this column right now has begun a conversation like this.

Yes, we can control our media time, but it’s at the expense of a shared discussion. Yes, the media revolves around us, we’re each in our own consumption world, the masters of our own networks, but that often leaves us alone in our experience. That’s great for overall consumption numbers — I just watched the first season of “Homeland” six months after it completed its airing and I’ve caught up on “Deadwood” and “Mad Men” this same way — but it delays our conversations about those shows.

We aren’t sharing much in real time.

When it comes to the water cooler effect of media, we each bring our own bottles to work now.

How many times have you asked thsi question of a friend who is finally watching a show that you also love, “What season are you on?” That’s our fishing expedition to find out what’s fair game to discuss, we want to avoid spoiling it for others. Woe unto you on Twitter or Facebook if you spoil a storyline in advance. It’s almost unheard of to ruin someone else’s viewing experience intentionally, the cardinal sin of social media. We all want to share what we like, but we’ve all learned the necessity of protecting plot reveals for others. That’s why, “What season are you on?” is so often followed by, “What just happened?” Your friend — who will definitely know the season he or she is watching — will give you a quick rundown of the story and you’ll pick up there, careful to discuss only what’s happened up to that point.

These conversations happen all the time now, yet were unheard of a decade ago. Back then no one said, “What season are you on?”  Fifteen years ago, the question would have provoked a furrowed brow and a quizzical look. How many years of “Dallas” had there even been? No one knew the season back then. You watched an episode live or you caught it on reruns. You didn’t watch entire seasons of shows that you’d never watched before to catch up with a new show that was still on television. Now gorging on a show, episode after episode, season after season, from start to finish, is one of life’s great entertainment joys, a red badge of TV honor. How many times has a bleary-eyed friend returned to work to tell you that he or she spent the entire weekend locked in on a show? “I watched three seasons of “Breaking Bad” this weekend. I just couldn’t stop.”

If you already watch “Breaking Bad,” what’s guaranteed to be your next question?

“What season are you on?” 

And so the cycle begins anew.

Yes, we all consume more media than we ever have before, but we consume it in our own time. Granted, big fans of shows may watch them close to the air date, but generally this is to avoid the spoiler. Initially television executives feared the rise of the DVR, because that freedom threatened large viewerships. That was a valid fear, that we’d all spiral off into our own worlds and shared media experiences would become rare. Television has always relied on massive audiences to fuel its big events. Just when splintering audiences seemed to spell the end of the networks and send us spiraling off into our own separate media universes social media came onto the scene, the so-called two screen viewing experience. We all sit with our iPhones or laptops or iPads and comment in real time.

Now sporting events, award shows, and, increasingly, stunt spectaculars like the crossing of Niagara Falls are incredible ratings beneficiaries of the second screen experience.

It turns out we want to share the experience of watching live events on television. We want to be part of a big audience all watching the same thing. And we all want to share our opinions of the live event. With Twitter and Facebook even if you’re watching the event by yourself, which we often are, you’ve got a crew sharing the experience with you online. 

And where do those massive audiences come from most frequently? 

Sports.  

Every single one of us has asked, “What season are you on?” for a television drama before. How many times have you asked, “What game are you on?” for a friend watching sports? 

Never, right?

Not once. 

I bet this conversation has never happened. No one saves sixteen NFL games and watches it on his or her own time.  

With the rise of the DVR our shared experiences are almost exclusively sports now. That’s one reason sports rights fees are increasing so quickly — advertisers know that most sports are DVR proof. After all, 99.8 percent of ESPN programming is viewed live. That’s the highest percentage for any network.

We consume our sports live.  

Which brings me, in a roundabout fashion, to this year’s Olympics and a fascinating question: How would American sports fans react when NBC brought us the Olympics on tape delay in primetime?  It’s been four years since Beijing — the first real test of social media meeting the Olympics — and I wanted to follow this year’s Olympics closely to see whether the rise of Twitter and Facebook — with their ability to immediately share live event results — would serve to undercut the overall viewing experience. To find out whether social media would fragment the audience, with millions of us preferring our own unique live Olympic experience over the one produced by the network, or whether fans would still crave the shared experience.

After three days, the rating results are in, fans have tuned in to a tape-delayed Olympics in droves, setting viewership records for a foreign Olympics and often challenging the viewership numbers for the past two Olympics on American soil, 1984 in Los Angeles and 1996 in Atlanta.

So what have we learned about sports and social media for the 2012 Olympics?

1. Twitter firestorms sometimes don’t cross over to the general public.

Sports fans on Twitter are the elite of the elite, a small percentage of the most technologically astute and plugged in American sports fans. Everyone on my feed has crushed NBC for not showing big events live on television. Then what have those same people done?

Watched it on tape delay and Tweeted about it.

This is an important lesson — the network still has the power. When you look at the ratings numbers, NBC’s decision has been validated. Viewers are watching a tape delayed Olympics in record numbers. The lesson: We’d rather share tape delayed Olympics than watch alone in real time.

Would showing the events live on a smaller network have poisoned the overall viewer numbers? We don’t know for sure. Given that NBC has posted huge numbers so far, I’d be inclined to use a few popular events later in the second week as a trial balloon. What happens if you show Michael Phelps swimming live on NBC Sports Network, for example, and then re-air it later that night on NBC?

Do the numbers actually decline?

Given that NBC has the next several Olympics, I’d be interested to have that data, especially since the network has already overdelivered on ratings points for advertisers this year.

I suspect that so long as the video wasn’t released online, the numbers wouldn’t change much at all. Which means you could sate the bitching and moaning without actually detracting from the overall audience. Or you could just ignore the Twitter firestorm content in knowing that the masses don’t really care.

2. NBC programs for the masses.

The masses are not yet on Twitter.

There’s a lesson here for NBC and other media companies — a Twitter firestorm may appear to be all-encompassing, but it might not have crossed over to the general public at all. Facebook is the megaphone of the masses, Twitter is still more elite. NBC has been ripped on Twitter, but that ripping hasn’t hurt business. In fact, you could even argue that the ripping about not showing the live events has actually worked to NBC’s benefit because then people are even more anxious to tune in and watch the events.

Think of the bitching as free advertising for the top events.

When I read Facebook, I tremble for our country’s future, when I read Twitter, I’m optimistic. Basically, Twitter is Facebook for people with IQ’s of over 100.

But lots of people aren’t plugged in to sports all day on social media.

They work their asses off and want to come home, sit on the couch and be entertained.

NBC probably has this data and I’d love to see it because I think we’d all be shocked — but what percentage of viewers have no idea that what they’re watching is tape-delayed? It’s high.

Especially because NBC really only mentions that its events are tape-delayed at the opening of the evening telecast. Otherwise, lots of people get lost in the coverage and don’t even think about the time delay.

NBC executives had to be nervous about the firestorm of Twitter criticism. Up until they saw the ratings results. Either the bitching had no impact, or the bitching actually increased viewership. Either way NBC wins.

3. Lots of us still prefer NBC’s mixtape of the best Olympics coverage.

Why?

Because NBC captures the story for us and lets us know what the stakes of a particular performance are, why what we’re watching matters. Live sports without a story is like opening a book and reading random chapters. Yes, you may know how chapter five ends, but you lack the context to understand why what happened in chapter five matters.

Context is everything when it comes to an event as massive as the Olympics.   

Plus, lots of the Olympics is boring and predictable.

Unlike say, the NCAA basketball tournament, when we can put one bracket in front of us and see all the games and know what the impact of a win or a loss is, good luck trying to figure out what a particular swimming match or water polo event means in the overall context of the sport or the games.

The Olympics are so massive none of us can watch them all.

So we trust NBC — or whoever is airing the Olympics — to put them in front of us in a way that makes sense.

Sure, we could make our own mixtape of events, but it’s probably going to suck compared to what NBC prepares.

Put it this way, you don’t go to a fancy Las Vegas club and pass them your iPod, you trust the DJ there to do a better job than you could.

Ratings suggest NBC is the mix master.

4. Online is still a very poor substitute for television.

I know online video is supposed to be the future, but that future is still a long way away when it comes to competing with actual television. Sure, Mikey bites his finger on YouTube is fine, but if that aired on network television no one would watch. YouTube works because it gives us something we can’t find on regular television. Online video that actually competes with the best of television is so far away from being a reality that pretending otherwise is foolish.

I’ve pulled up NBC’s streaming of live events. It’s great if you’re a hard core fan of a particular sport and absolutely have to see it for yourself live. But what if you’re a dunce like me and know nothing about how the top women’s gymnasts are selected? Or you need scoring explained? Or you need the results in context? Then watching online is curiously devoid of emotion, there are results but no stakes. The announcers are our storytellers, they set the scene.

Ratings for this Olympics suggest it’s better to have a tape-delayed sporting event with a good announcer than it is to have a live event without an announcer.

Yes, we know the result quicker with live streaming, but we lose the drama, the sense of story, the Olympic experience of an HD broadcast.

This isn’t just me saying it, this is advertisers as well. While digital may very well be the future, do you know what NBC’s making for digital ad sales of this Olympics? Sixty million dollars. That sounds like a lot, but it’s pennies on the TV dollar. NBC has done $1.2 billion in total ad sales. This digital number looks even smaller when you consider that all digital buys were paired with television buys. 

That is, digital wasn’t sold separately, it was sold as a package deal. 

Television is still where the eyes are.  

Online video is a poor, poor substitute for television and I don’t see this changing anytime soon.  

5. You can make an argument that a tape-delayed Olympics is better television than a live Olympics.

How so?

This way you don’t miss the best stories. Let’s face it, sometimes live sporting events are duds. How many times have you built your night around a sporting event that’s never a contest? 

Often, right?

As it airs on delay NBC is able to piece together the best of the day’s events and bring it to you in ordered and narratively linear segments. In terms of production quality and viewer experience, having several hours to curate the best content is actually a better experience for the viewer than hustling from one event to another when they’re all simultaneously occurring.

Bottom line: NBC is getting ripped on Twitter for not showing enough live events, but the rating results are proof that the network struck a perfect balance in its airing of the 2012 games. Enough live events to quell the protest, but not enough live to kill the broadcast. The only real question that remains is this, could NBC have shown everything live without cannibalizing the evening audience? That’s why I’d love for NBC to run some experiments later in this Olympics to gauge the results. 

My best guess is that we’d still want to share the Olympics. 

And that would mean that viewers would tune in together even if the results were already known. 

Meaning that Olympic sports, perhaps unique in the television universe, isn’t a slave to time. 

And that over 100 years after they started the 2012 Olympics on television has taught us a renewed truth: We want to share the experience of the Olympics, even more than we want to know the results of the games.

Here are the top 20 markets for Olympic TV viewing:

1. Salt Lake: 25.2

2. Sacramento: 24.7

3. Kansas City: 24.2

4. San Diego: 24.0

5. Milwaukee: 24.0

6. Columbus, OH: 23.8

7. Denver: 23.8

8. Norfolk: 23.0

9. Indianapolis: 22.9

10. Richmond: 22.9

11. Fort Myers: 22.7

12. West Palm: 22.6

13. Washington DC 22.3

14. Oklahoma City: 22.2

15. Nashville: 22.0

16. Austin: 21.7

17. Boston: 21.6

18. Portland, OR 21.2

19. Jacksonville 21.1

20. (Four way tie) 

Written by Clay Travis

OutKick founder, host and author. He's presently banned from appearing on both CNN and ESPN because he’s too honest for both.