The 2012 Summer Olympics kicked off a few days ago. These are the first Olympic games where Twitter will play a significant role in both audience and athlete participation; publications like Mashable are even touting these Olympics as the “first real-time games”. But if you live in the United States, you already know just how “real-time” the London 2012 Olympics have been. As an example, NBC opted to tape-delay their broadcast of Friday’s Opening Ceremony, starting the US East Coast broadcast at 7:30 p.m. EDT, three and a half hours after the event actually started in London. In an age of Twitter and other real-time social media, this kind of time delay presents a big challenge for fans and a missed opportunity for networks. Live television is more relevant now than it has been in years – and tape delays are increasingly irrelevant and even detrimental.
Twitter and Live TV
While most types of television benefit from the sense of urgency engendered by real-time social media, two kinds of shows have become essential to watch in real time. The first are shows that rely on audience participation throughout each episode, like American Idol and other reality shows where folks at home call in their votes to determine which contestants continue on.
The others are the cliffhanger-heavy, high drama shows with reveals galore, like ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars. If you don’t tune in when the show is originally broadcast, then you risk hearing about the ending before you see it. Twitter should come with a giant “spoiler alert” label on it.
Sporting events fall into this second category – televised events that must be watched live to prevent spoilers. Can you imagine watching the Super Bowl a few hours after it originally aired? It would be nearly impossible to avoid learning which team won. The Olympics should probably fall into this category, right? Right?!
Twitter, TV and the 2012 Olympic Games
Of course it’s complicated to consider myriad time zones and a large global audience. And it gets even more complicated when you throw in Twitter, which allows people from around the world to share their thoughts with anyone at any time. To help deal with these complexities, NBC, the only US broadcast television network with the rights to air the Olympics, has opted to time-delay their airing of some events, while others air in real time.
This time delay has led to confusion and countless spoilers, like last Saturday when the results of the men’s swimming 400 medley competition was announced on NBC’s Nightly News program, even though the event itself hadn’t been broadcast on NBC yet! Of course this has led to numerous articles about how to avoid Olympic spoilers on Twitter, as well as an angry backlash online, with hashtags like #NBCfail emerging as Olympic fans plead with NBC to air more events live. There are even parody Twitter accounts poking fun at the time delay. @NBCDelayed popped up over the weekend and has already generated thousands of retweets.
So, are people watching less of NBC’s coverage because of this? Well… Maybe not. Not yet, at least.
Nielsen ratings were actually up for Friday’s broadcast of the Opening Ceremony, with an average of 40.7 million viewers tuning in. That is higher than the 2008 Opening Ceremony in Beijing (34.9 million) and the 1996 Opening Ceremony in Atlanta (39.7 million).
Overall, there were 6.3 million tweets posted about the Olympics during the Opening Ceremony on Friday (during the UK and US broadcasts of the event, lasting from 20:00 UTC on July 27, 2012 until 07:00 UTC on July 28, 2012). Here’s the tweets per minute breakdown for the full time period. The biggest spike of about 29K tweets per minute happened 48 minutes in the live show, at 20:48 UTC, right around the time Mr. Bean started conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (a phrase I never thought I’d type).
In 2008, Twitter was very different than it is today. It was much smaller, and far less tied to pop culture and television than it is now. So a comparison to 2008 Olympic tweets probably won’t help us understand the 2012 Olympics games very much. However, comparing tweets posted during the different Opening Ceremony broadcasts can tell us something. 3.85 million tweets were posted during live performance (UK time) and 2.35 million tweets were posted during US East Coast broadcast on NBC. Since NBC started their broadcast 3.5 hours into the live performance, there is some overlap between the two telecasts (from approximately 23:30 – 00:00 UTC). The chart below highlights the four hours of the Opening Ceremony from both the live and tape-delayed perspectives.
There is large decrease in tweets during the US broadcast compared to the live broadcast. But if much of the rest of the world was watching when the Opening Ceremony was performed live, then US tweet volume wouldn’t really be able to compete with that. Approximately one-third of Twitter accounts are from the United States, so it’s reasonable to expect the kinds of volume numbers we see above. These certainly aren’t the numbers we’d expect if American viewers simply boycotted the program.
On the other hand, the Opening Ceremony aired on Friday night, marking the official start of the 2012 Olympic games. People simply hadn’t had time to become irritated and fed up with the time delay yet, so lots of people watched. If there really is general support to move away from tape-delayed broadcasts, it will likely take a few days to emerge in the Olympics data. So for now, we’ll keep watching it.
Tape delays are not only irrelevant, but they’re actually damaging fan participation and goodwill. It’s time NBC – and other networks who insist on time delays for their live televised programs – start to work with the evolving model of real-time social television instead of around it.