There are some stories that aren’t quite as big as they sound from the amount of attention we give them online. And one of those is the story of social media outrage at NBC’s decision to tape-delay the Olympic opening ceremonies and other events. Equipped on Twitter with the hashtag #nbcfail, the social media blitz has produced a lot of entertaining tweets on the theme that NBC had, well, failed. They ranged from serious statements that the network had squandered the promise of modern media, like “In a wired world, tape delay ruins the possibility of global solidarity at one of the few moments that promise it” (Hugo Schwyzer), to snarky pronouncements like “NBC: Will Pearl Harbor be attacked? Find out in primetime!” (Will Bunch). There are even accusations that Twitter is trying to shut down some of the negative comments: the service suspended the account of journalist Guy Adams after he posted the (corporate, not private) email of the NBC executive in charge of Olympics coverage and advised his readers to complain about the network “pretending the Olympics haven’t started yet.”
Complaining is fun; I love it. (I also love being in a country where the opening ceremonies were carried live on TV, so I didn’t have to wait for Bob Costas to tell me what was going on.) But when we move from complaining to trying to make a serious point about the future of media, we’re on shakier ground. A number of people have argued that this was a bad business strategy on NBC’s part; new-media evangelists have argued, as BuzzMachine’s Jeff Jarvis told the Associated Press, that NBC wants to “hold on to old media strategies in a new media world, and that’s a mistake.” Well, for it to be a mistake, NBC would probably have to get less than great ratings. Instead, the network has gotten record-breaking TV ratings for its coverage, including the infamous tape-delayed opening.
Correlation doesn’t prove causation; you can’t prove that the ratings would not have been equally good or better with a more social-media-friendly plan. But at the very least, there’s no proof that ignoring or downplaying social media has been a problem for ratings. And the network’s stated strategy–that it needs to save some of the big events for prime time, because that’s when most people are watching–seems to have paid off. It pays off, in part, because major sporting events are the most valuable pieces of real estate in TV today; the Olympics and the Super Bowl are among the only things for which ratings go up, not down. Networks do need to wring as much advertising money out of these events as they can.
You could actually turn the new-media evangelists’ argument around and say that in a world of many media choices, networks need to do more–not less–to maximize the number of people watching TV in prime time. In the old media world of three channels, all they had to worry about was whether we might watch one of the other channels or, heaven forbid, read a book. Now, with so many options available to us, networks may need–from a business standpoint, I mean, not a moral one–to make it worth our while to forego those other options when they have something we really want. Most of the time, of course, TV networks don’t have something we must have; there’s almost no scripted program so important that we need to watch it as soon as possible, and sometimes we enjoy them more if we wait a while to watch them. But a big sports event? Those things are still incredibly valuable, and whatever gets the largest number of people watching them after 7 (when advertising rates are higher) might be worthwhile.
That’s debatable, of course, and as other forms of TV viewing become more common and more sophisticated, networks may have no choice but to give us everything we want at the moment it happens. (Either that, or do what they’ve done with baseball: pressure everyone into scheduling their events around whatever time is best for U.S. networks.) NBC and other networks are already operating on the assumption that streaming is going to become a much bigger part of viewership and revenue. But by the time that is fully in place, Twitter and Facebook may have gone the way of MySpace. Social media changes so much and so quickly, and represents such a limited slice of the audience, that it seems unlikely that NBC paid any price for the #nbcfail incident, any more than the #romneyshambles hashtag is going to make a huge dent in Romney’s poll numbers. (It’s possible that social media helps NBC more than it hurts, by increasing awareness of these major events – even the #nbcfail tweets increase awareness.) When choosing between a few people on Twitter and the 40 million U.S. viewers who tuned in for the tape-delayed opening, networks will always choose the latter. Well, most networks. Maybe not the CW.