Blogs & Comment

NBC's Olympics coverage not as controversial as Twitterverse thinks

Despite all the huffing and puffing on Twitter, NBC's decision to delay Olympic events has led to record-breaking ratings.


Illustration by Gopal Raju

I don’t have any hard data to back this up, but I’m increasingly getting the feeling that if you were to inform yourself of what’s going on in the world solely by using Twitter, you’d probably go through life as a very angry individual. As much as I love the social networking service, it’s often guilty of the same crime that so many of its users ironically accuse the so-called mainstream media of perpetrating: sensationalism. And by its very nature, sensationalism is subconsciously designed to make people angry over whatever the current cause célèbre is. Twitter… grrr!

The latest outrage-of-the-day—ma “Twitrage?”—was over NBC’s coverage of the Olympics. The U.S. network has taken much heat on Twitter (“Twheat?” Okay, I’ll stop now) this week for its decision to air the games on a time delay rather than live as they happen.

NBC’s thinking is driven by the $1-billion plus it paid for the rights to broadcast the games. The network wants to air events during prime-time evening hours, when most people watch TV, so it can maximize advertising revenue. Many Twitter users think this is a stupid idea, given that we’re in an era of instantaneous information. Ultimately, they say, what’s the point of watching competitions when the results are all over the Internet as soon as they conclude?

The point is, most people don’t care. According to the TV Newser blog, “every single night so far of NBC Olympics coverage has broken previous Olympics ratings records, this despite the controversy over tape delay.” What this proves is that the games are just like any other TV show.

While Americans living on the time-delayed west side of the country can, for example, easily find out what happened in the latest episode of Cougar Town or American Idol by going online, most don’t because they’d rather just watch and find out for themselves. When it comes to entertainment they choose to invest in, people don’t like spoilers and go out of their way to avoid them.

The other side of the coin is a report released by the Pew Research Center, which found that as of February, only 15% of people online use Twitter, while only 8% do so on a typical day. While usage is growing steadily, the numbers are a clear indication that what you hear on Twitter does not necessarily represent the views of the mainstream majority.

I’ve written before about how Twitter has a tendency to become an echo chamber, where certain points of views on issues are blown up while other perspectives aren’t heard at all. Indeed, Facebook—with nearly a billion users—is far more representative of the mainstream. Again, it’s not a scientific measure, but I’ve heard much less about the NBC brouhaha over on my Facebook account than I have on Twitter. And my Facebook friends who did mention it also tended to be avid Twitter users.

The moral of the story is that Twitter users can be as outraged as they want over NBC’s Olympics coverage. The numbers strongly suggest that the network really shouldn’t care what they think—and it probably doesn’t.

There is, however, a second part to the tale, which is Twitter’s banning of British journalist Guy Adams, who has been a very vocal critic of NBC’s coverage, at the behest of the network. Adams’s account was suspended this week after he posted the email address of network honcho Gary Zenkel, which is apparently a no-no under Twitter’s terms of service.

As Adams and others have pointed out, his posting didn’t necessarily violate Twitter’s rules because he used Zenkel’s corporate email address rather than a personal or private one, and also because that address was freely available elsewhere online.

Twitter has never preached a “don’t be evil” mantra like some other Internet companies, but banning a user on such flimsy grounds is a pretty clear case of censorship. For a service that has had such a profound impact on recent historical events, including the Arab Spring and London riots, it’s a very bad precedent that has shaken the faith of many users.

Twitter restored Adams’s account on Tuesday after NBC apparently withdrew its request for the ban, but in the long run the service may very well have lost its benign innocence. That’s something users can be rightly outraged about.