Olympics top 'Idol,' but tape delays anger viewers

NBC's Olympic broadcast tactics have some scrambling to avoid 'spoilers.'

Mike Segar/Reuters
US alpine skier Lindsey Vonn crashes on the slalom run of the women's Super Combined on Thursday at the Vancouver Olympics.

NBC's prime time Olympic programming handed Fox's "American Idol" its first second-place ratings finish since 2004 on Wednesday night, Nielson reported. But sports fans, not Fox executives, are the ones up in arms.

NBC’s Olympics broadcast tactics have become a hot topic around the water cooler and with media watchers in recent days. US readers have been writing into news websites with anger, asking them to include "spoiler alert" messages about Olympic events that are over, but have not yet been broadcast by NBC.

Washington Post Managing Editor Liz Spayd told a reader, “We don’t want to be the game spoilers, but when big news happens – an unexpected gold for the U.S., for example, we want it prominently visible at the site.”

The episode and others like it highlight larger issues about changing society values in the Internet age, say several theorists. It speaks to the economic need of NBC to milk its exclusive-rights to coverage to recover its highest monetary return. And it spotlights a growing American penchant to experience sporting events live – defined as “not knowing the outcome” – whenever possible.

“We need to ask the question, ‘what does this say about us as news consumers that we need to experience the thrill and pleasure of sports competition while it’s happening?’” says Peter Lehman, director of the Center for Film, Media, and Popular Culture at Arizona State University. He notes that on the cable channel MSNBC, ostensibly a 24-hour news channel in competition with FOX and CNN, producers have opted to run live Olympics coverage instead of the news that people have come to expect.

“Here is MSNBC, which has been trying to position itself as a serious news channel in relationship to CNN, and they are subordinating that commitment to maximize their return.”

If some complain that NBC’s reasoning is bizarre and selfish for consolidating all the highlight moments into a prime time package to sell more advertising, some theorists say, “hey, it’s working.”

“As old-fashioned as it seems, this is getting them higher numbers,” says Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “It’s interesting to me that in a world that has changed so much with DVRs and the Internet, that an awful lot of people are consuming the Olympics like they did eight years ago.”

Thompson and others say that journalists and news outlets are under no obligation to include spoiler alerts – though they may seem a decent compromise for those not wanting to alienate readers.

“News sites should be breaking news in real time and not worrying about the effect on delayed television broadcasts,” says Jeff McCall, a professor of media studies at DePauw University. “NBC's decision to delay broadcast of certain events to prime time is a sensible one, but that should have no bearing on the timing of what newspapers put on their web sites," he says. "This is a good time, however, for the managers of news web sites to carefully explain to readers the responsibility of news organizations to provide news in a timely fashion. It is not the job of news organizations to embargo legitimate news for the sake of live broadcast television.”

McCall says that although it is sports, Olympic results are important to have available in a timely fashion, prime time television delays or not. And, for every media consumer who doesn't want to know the results until the television broadcast, there are bound to be many who want to know the results right away.

“News web managers owe them that,” says McCall. “People who want to watch NBC tape delay as though it were live should just stay away from news web sites in the meantime.”

The episode points to an increasingly on-demand media environment, where consumers are getting used to having access to media content anytime, anywhere, and on any platform.

“These asynchronous patterns of viewing are becoming commonplace as consumers are empowered by time-shifting, streaming, and other on-demand technologies,” says Tom Ksiazek, assistant professor of communication at Villanova University. “Going away are the days when programmers had control over when people watch.”

Learning from the field of ethics might provide some insight here, say others. “Technology offers a number of simple opportunities here,” says Brian Moriarty of the Business Roundtable Institute for Corporate Ethics.

“A news site could offer vague and intriguing headlines about breaking Olympic news, such as 'Did Lindsey Vonn’s Ankle Hold Up in the Downhill? Find Out Now!' “This, or similar strategies, leave it up to the reader to decide whether or not it is more important to them to know now, or to watch the event not knowing the result. Some people don’t want to be forced to decide between keeping up with the news or enjoying the Olympics on TV. Some people want another option and editors ought to view this as an opportunity to create value for both their readers and their news organization.”

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