Spoilers, Celebrities and Streaming: How Twitter is Revolutionizing the 2012 Olympics

9:40 AM PST 08/02/2012 by Jordan Zakarin
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The social messaging network has opened up the games like never before, which has created both opportunity and headache for broadcaster NBC.

Public unrest. Transatlantic outrage. A burgeoning revolution.

If NBC doesn't get that desperately-needed boost for its fall lineup with primetime Olympic placement, their coverage of the games themselves has all the elements required for a delicious drama.

A few days before the beginning of the Olympics in London, NBC announced that it would be partnering with Twitter during the duration of the event, making the social messaging platform the official "narrator" of the games. As it has turned out, the biggest story to unfold has been the unexpected way social networking has transformed the way fans experience the games.

With mutual cooperation, the sides were sure that the relationship be a boon for both: NBC would promote Twitter throughout its prime time broadcasts, while Twitter would evangelize the games on social media, stirring up excitement and providing access to athletes and competitions beyond the network's massive effort to stream the games live online.

What it seems that NBC may have failed to consider is that, unlike a one-way television broadcast, the masses participating online cannot be neatly corralled; they are a mobile, excitable and, by nature, vocal group -- especially when there's something to complain about. With 500 million users worldwide, and 140 million in the United States, it can get loud.

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The transatlantic time difference led the network to tape delay most of the events, so that they could edit them together into a nightly, five hour prime time broadcast. Yet Twitter's instantaneous news delivery changed the very nature of watching competitive sports: instead of being easily able to avoid any spoilers before tuning into the nightly broadcast, like in years past, fans could follow the play-by-play of each event, as described by reporters on the ground and those watching online. The spoiler tweeting and illegal stream-viewing began with last Friday's lavish Opening Ceremony, as did the complaints.

When Michael Phelps lost in a shock defeat to fellow American swimmer Ryan Lochte, watching it happen on TV hours later wasn't shocking; meanwhile, the emotional payoff of seeing the US Women's Gymnastics team win the group gold was neutered by the fact that, way before the scores hit the airwaves, they were tweeted. And it didn't even take social media's assistance for NBC to step on its own feet when it came to spoiling swimmer Missy Franklin's gold medal, in the 100-meter backstroke; they blew that secret in a Today Show promo. The network issued an apology for that one.

Discontent with the broadcast system has reigned supreme, and been a main theme of the grassroots hashtag #NBCFail, which was just about the opposite of what the network had hoped to trend when it agreed to its deal with Twitter. It became a trending topic when Twitter, at NBC's request, banned Independent editor Guy Adams after he criticized the network's coverage and published an executive's corporate email address; a day later, he was re-instated, NBC humbled. This trending topic, unsurprisingly, does not register on NBC's Twitter Tracker.

But there have been other, even more serious complaints. The Opening Ceremonies weren't just tape-delayed; the network was accused of editing out a tribute to the victims of the 7/7 terrorist attack in London, as well. Olympics executive producer Jim Bell disputed that notion, telling The Hollywood Reporter that it was not explained to them as a tribute, and did not resonate with American audiences.

Bell also points to the ratings of this year's games; whether people like the tape delay or not, they're tuning in in record numbers. The Opening Ceremony was the most watched summer games opener in history, while on Tuesday night, a massive audience of 37.5 million Americans watched the Women's Gymnastics squad win gold.

Here, it would seem Twitter and NBC's deal was going according to plan. As much as the conversation about the tape delay has leaned toward anger, it has still served the purpose of informing web users that, later that night, there will be something historic happening on television. And though they may know the outcomes, fans have still "live" tweeted the events while watching on television, creating a buzz that serves to draw in more viewers.

The platform's heavy presence of celebrities has also been a great service to both NBC and the athletes themselves. Stars such as Lady Gaga, Oprah Winfrey, Pink, Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian and Octavia Spencer, among many others, have sent out congratulatory messages to the American winners. Big props have gone out to Phelps and Lochte, especially, and in the past week, they have gained over 450,000 and 461,763 followers, respectively. It didn't hurt that President Obama's press secretary tweeted the news that the Commander-in-Chief had spoke with Phelps on the phone.

Meanwhile, the gymnastics gold winners have seen huge surges as well: Jordyn Wieber has gone from less than 60,000 to 325,000 followers, while Aly Raisman and Gabrielle Doug have launched from the mid-30,000's to over 210,000 apiece. They, too, got an Obama Twitter shout-out.

These athletes, like many others, have provided a new level of access to the games to fans around the world. They're able to reach directly out to followers after competitions, tweet out photos and videos from behind the scenes (Lochte provided a video of his baby nephew; Raisman posed with her coach and medal; the Men's Basketball team is engaged in a war of slumber photos) and send out messages to their fellow Olympians.

The unfiltered microphone hasn't always been utilized so well, with multiple athletes getting booted from the games for racist and abusive tweets. American soccer goalie Hope Solo got into an argument with legendary former player-turned-broadcaster Brandi Chastain, which was a smat of bad PR. Then again, athletes have been able to take control of the public sentiment, as well; star British diver Tom Daley, for example, fought back against users writing hateful things about his late father, which proved to be an even more meaningful win.

But one thing is certain - with Twitter still growing and NBC locked into a new contract to broadcast four more Olympic games, it's an issue that's sure to raise its head at the 2014 Winter Games, in Sochi, Russia -- a city that is eight hours ahead of New York. Bell told The Hollywood Reporter that he believes television will remain the most-watched deliverer of Olympic content for years to come, which means the network has some tape-delay issues to discuss.

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