Sam Mellinger: Twitter-sphere takes aim at NBC’s delays

They are worrying about security, with missile launchers on residential buildings. They are worrying about appearances, with military personnel serving as seat-fillers for the TV shots. And they are worrying about the rain, with CGI-looking clouds hovering over Olympic Park here.

As it happens, what they really should be worrying about is Twitter. The social media monster with the silly name is turning these Summer Olympics upside down, 140 characters or so at a time.

Even if you’re not on Twitter the impact is impossible to miss. Hope Solo, the wild and terrific goaltender for Team USA women’s soccer, used it to blast former teammate and now commentator Brandi Chastain. A Greek triple jumper was booted out of the Olympics for a racist Tweet. And the German hockey player was apparently the victim of a “cowardly fake” message with an offensive joke about Greece.


Back home, the Twitter takeover is mocking NBC’s 10-figure investment in the Games. When a broadcasting giant can’t make events start in prime time on the East Coast, it just pretends it can.

So with London five hours ahead of those major markets, NBC made the very 1996 decision to tape-delay many events – notably major ones such as the Lochte-Phelps showdown.

NBC has always tape delayed Olympic events when there’s a major time difference, but these are different times we’re in. Twitter didn’t exist in 2004, and only had six million users in 2008. Today, more than 150 million people use it.

Twitter ensures the world moves in real time, and in that way NBC is spitting into the wind of reality. It’s streaming events live online with the slogan “watch history on,” which is good advice when the alternative is to watch history on television.

NBC is also taking the stubborn stance that high TV ratings are a mandate of tape delayed programming. As if people are tuning in to see NBC, and not the actual events.

Behind the scenes, Olympics organizers and powers are struggling with how to deal with this. They like the free and easy promotion provided by athletes speaking directly to fans, but don’t want the headaches of the inevitable controversies.

NBC’s issue is potentially worse. Information embargoes on major events happening in front of thousands of reporters just aren’t possible. A policy made it possible to revoke credentials of journalists who posted pictures of the opening ceremonies setup before the broadcast, but if there was ever sincerity in the threat it was overwhelmed by a huge number of violators.

There is a thought from some that this may all take care of itself. The viewing experience is still far better on affordable high-definition TV than through computers, but trends continue to push heavy toward online. More than half the online consumption of these Olympics is being done on mobile devices, for instance.

At some point, perhaps the online viewing quality will get close enough to television for the convenience to make it better overall. But at the moment, the best part of mobile devices is the immediacy – and it’s knocking heads with what NBC wants to package for your living room during primetime.

Twitter has weaved its way into a habitual place of many American lives, particularly sports fans, and nobody wants to watch an event after they know the result. If we miss a game live, that’s why God invented highlights.

NBC is trying to change the rules and fight the way people want to consume live events.

Good luck with that.



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