Well, well, well. It looks like the London Olympics might end up demonstrating -- in a way that all the detailed viewing reports from TV researchers never seem to make clear -- that people still like to watch a lot of TV.
It wasn’t supposed to work out this way. This was going to be the year when social media and Internet streaming finally dealt a death blow to the old way of watching the Games. Initially dubbed the “iPad Olympics” because of NBC’s commitment to stream almost every event live, many commentators predicted that the prime-time broadcast -- delivered via time delay, well after the results were made available by other media -- would be a ratings bust
Those expectations betrayed a misunderstanding of what the Olympics actually are. Because the Games involve physical contests, TV pundits have treated it as a sporting event and assumed that viewers wouldn’t tune in if they knew the winners ahead of time. But far from being “sports,” the Olympics are actually the world’s biggest reality show, one in which contestants compete using their athletic prowess instead of their ability to sing, dance, bake a cake, manipulate the emotions of others or drink themselves to oblivion.
One way to tell whether a broadcast is a real sporting event is to check gender breakdowns of the audience. A real sports broadcast – even one featuring female participants, such as women’s tennis and soccer – almost always skews male. But most Olympics events, like most reality TV, have a majority of female viewers.
Also, real sports have fans. Olympics viewers are not “fans” in any real sense of the word. A fan is someone who follows a sport throughout the year and already knows the back story to the contest. By contrast, to get viewers to care who wins the weight-lifting, pole vaulting or fencing events, NBC must, in classic reality TV fashion, package the event with personal interest videos and sob stories.
In other words, because this isn’t a classic sporting event, making some winners known ahead of time hasn’t necessarily killed interest in the primetime broadcast. In fact, it now seems apparent that dribbling out news about American gold medal winners throughout the day actually increases interest in the Games, because what American viewers want to watch more than anything else is other Americans winning gold medals.
At one time we thought NBC would benefit from having the 2016 Games in Rio, which is in an American time zone and would minimize the need for tape delays. But now it appears that might be a problem, because when you broadcast live you won’t necessarily be guaranteeing your audience American medals. Rio will be an interesting test case on showing whether knowing the results ahead of time helps or hurts the ratings.
Some other thoughts about the Olympics:
In any event, now that we’re in the home stretch, it’s probably safe to congratulate NBC on a successful Olympics. Thanks to them, we’ve relearned the lesson that TV is not going away anytime soon -- and that although the news media keeps focusing on the Internet, mobile, social and other forms of digital media, what people really want to do is sit on the couch, grab the clicker and see what’s on the tube.