I was talking to my father the other day when he brought up an old friend of his, a guy I remember working with Dad as an electrical lineman two decades ago. He’d been ill of late, and I asked dad if I could drop him an email or a Facebook message, just checking in, seeing how he’s doing, long time no see, that sort of business. Dad laughed. “Oh, he don’t got email,” he said. “He has a real job.”
It is important to remember that as much as everyone wants to call these the Twitter Olympic Games — otherwise excellent columnist Bruce Arthur of Toronto’s National Post claimed: “the superstructure of the Games seems to be sagging a little under the weight of the assembled masses, and of Twitter” — the vast, vast majority of people are not following these Games through Twitter or NBCOlympics.com; they are following them through their televisions. Battering around NBC for its time delays and its supposed squelching of dissent and its sporadic streaming operations is fun to do on Twitter, and inside the addictive echo chamber of Twitter it certainly feels as if NBC is doing some dramatic disservice to its customers. (“Every Single Person in America is Pissed at NBC’s Olympic Coverage,” screamed Gawker.) It feels like everyone is angry. But not everyone is. NBC isn’t doing a disservice to its viewers. It’s just ignoring the ones who don’t matter.
How about some figures to remind everyone what’s going on here: Eighteen percent of Americans still aren’t on the Internet. Of those 82 percent who are, only 15 percent use Twitter, and only eight percent use Twitter daily … which is to say, they’re talking only to each other.
These people are diehards, the ones more likely to stream a Montenegro water polo upset of Hungary at 9 in the morning, the ones who can’t believe that NBC isn’t treating the Olympics as some sort of austere Pure Sport spectacle, the ones most likely to complain on Twitter, to other Twitter users, about NBC. As one of these people, I’ve been doing all this myself. But NBC shouldn’t listen to me either. NBC didn’t just sign a $4.38 billion contract over the next eight years so it could make me happy on Twitter. NBC did it so people could watch on television.
It seems strange that I’d have to remind everyone of this, but: This is programming more than it is sport. (NBC is in the business of making money. You know this, right?) This is true of the NFL as well, but NBC has control of time zones there. It can put games on live like everyone wants, and there are no problems. With the Olympics, NBC’s goal is not to make diehards happy; it’s to create an ideal television viewing experience. That means trying — and, uh, often failing — to protect its programming from spoilers and encouraging people to watch its networks any way it can.
This is precisely the sort of thing that drives people on Twitter crazy because, by nature, people who are on Twitter every day (and I repeat: a tiny 8 percent of the 82 percent of people who have an email address) are obsessives about timeliness and real-time discussion. I feel the same way. Watching Missy Franklin go for a gold medal that I know for a fact she won 12 hours earlier seems stupid to me. But NBC certainly shouldn’t orchestrate its coverage around what I want. Most people aren’t like me. Most people just want something to watch at night and talk about with everyone the next morning.
The problem is that Twitter itself, because it’s such an efficient engine of communication, makes you think that it’s the only thing that matters. This is the “Snakes on a Plane” syndrome. Remember that movie? It was the big cult film that the Internet had decided was the coolest thing ever back in 2006, one that the echo chamber of the Web built into a massive tent-pole event in the weeks before it opened. New Line Cinema saw all the pre-release buzz and expanded the number of screens on which it would be shown, convinced that the chatter was a sign that the movie would open huge. And it bombed. Why did it bomb? Because the Internet makes you think everyone is talking about what you’re talking about. And they’re not. NBC can’t sell the Olympics as “Snakes on a Plane.” It needs it to be “The Avengers:” all things to all people.
This is why the initial reports on Guy Adams — the correspondent for The Independentwho had his account suspended by Twitter for supposedly tweeting out a “private” email address of an NBC executive — were so strange. It was tough to tell why NBC would give a damn in the first place. The follow-up reports cleared it up, though. It was Twitter – which has a contract with NBC for the Olympics that’s a much bigger deal for Twitter than it is for NBC — that reported Adams’ supposedly offensive tweet rather than NBC. (Though NBC followed through on the complaint and had Adams banned, a decision it has since rescinded because it “didn’t initially understand the repercussions.” In other words, they were mad, but “didn’t really understand Twitter enough to get what was going on.”) This is a reason to be worried about Twitter, but it was more a part of some overarching narrative invented by angry Twitter users (NBC hates us! #nbcfail!!!!!!) than any sort of sign that NBC was rattled by the criticism. The network’s ratings are breaking records every night. Why in the world should it care about some troll like Guy Adams? To paraphrase Rainier Wolfcastle: How does NBC sleep at night? On top of a pile of money with many beautiful ladies.
There’s a good argument to be made that networks and corporations should pay utmost heed to what their diehard customers want, rather than just be blandly generalist. If you make your most loyal customers happy, they’ll stick with you during down periods, providing you a solid customer base. But the Olympics are absolutely not the time to make that argument. There are no loyalist Olympic fans. This is an event that comes around every two years, featuring sports that, in any other context, no one cares about. There is no solid customer base. Everyone’s just dabbling, so NBC is selling accordingly. The Olympics are a two-week episode of the “Today” show, pitched at that level and sold accordingly. It’s the only way to do it.
One reason the Olympics are so fun is they’re disposable. You can get yourself all wrapped up in individual events and then easily shed them once they’re over. (Cleveland Browns fans will never get over The Drive, but chances are you’ve already made your peace with Jordyn Wieber’s disappointment.) This notion that something happens, you react, and then the experience is over happens to match up precisely with Twitter itself. When I am on Twitter, I am so fired up that I must write something immediately, and then someone reacts to it, and then that thing we were discussing vanishes and I move on to something else. There’s nothing wrong with this. I’m as addicted to Twitter as anyone. But it doesn’t mean that anyone should listen to me, and they definitely shouldn’t change a billion-dollar business plan because of it.
The Olympics are a global event because of the pageantry, not the competition. (If you can convince me that you have watched every heat of the last 10 swimming World Championships, I will hear your dissents here. But only then.) You know what makes the pageantry? Television! Without the global reach of TV, the Olympics are just a gaggle of niche sports all played at the same time. The packaging is what makes it all matter.(After all, in person, most of these venues are only half full.) And it’s why NBC can pay so much for the rights and feel confident earning its money back. It can capture enough casual viewers while knowing that the rest of us, at the end of the day, are just bitching.
Now, I don’t like this, just to be clear. I believe that NBC has screwed up a ton at these Olympics, particularly with some of its ridiculous decisions during the Opening Ceremonies. I agree with almost all the frustrations. But who cares what I think? I am not the target audience for NBC. Its target audience is people who watch television at night and then go to bed and then work all the next day until they watch television when they get home. They are normal people, who actually like not knowing the results of the television program they’re about to watch. They have real jobs. They are, quite simply, America, and there’s a lot more of them than there are of us on Twitter. So relax, everybody. It’ll all be over in a couple weeks, and then we will forget all about any of this.
And then, in four years, when the Olympics are in South America, in a more reasonable time zone, we’ll all find something more to complain about. It is, after all, what we’ve always done.