Sam Donnellon: Social media spur greater interest in Games

Posted: August 15, 2012

AMONG THE difficulties covering the Olympics for a newspaper is balancing the touching stories with the televised ones, having the chops to write about people and players who don't get prime-time play by the network. You risk, in skipping the women's beach volleyball semifinal in favor of a compelling story about a javelin thrower, appearing to be out of touch with what's important.

When you were there, though, the suspicion always was that you were simply out of touch with that night's network programming, a suspicion confirmed by me during these Olympics.

No one from the Daily News was sent to London. The rationale for that decision, made by the newspaper's previous owners, was simple: Too much cost for something people cared too little about.

Oh, really?

Citing a report from the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project, an Associated Press story said that eight of every 10 Americans watched these Olympics at one point or another. NBC was pleasantly surprised by a 12 percent increase in its average nightly audience from the Olympics of Beijing, despite airing events that had been completed hours before, and whose outcomes were already well known.

That spike averaged out to 31.1 million viewers. Theories abound about this surprise, but at least one of them has some honest-to-goodness scientific data to support it. Social media only feel as if they've been around forever. Truth is, their explosion has taken place largely between the last Summer Olympics and this one.

Facebook had 100 million users 4 years ago. Now it boasts 900 million. The Associated Press story also noted that American Gabby Douglas, the 16-year-old firefly who became the early face of the Games with a surprising gold medal in the gymnastics all-around competition, went from 14,358 followers on July 27 to 540,174 less than 2 weeks later.

Similarly, German gymnast Marcel Nguyen increased from 7,567 followers to 179,441 during roughly the same span.

Twitter was little more than a rumor when I was in Beijing. Certainly, it was not a tool for journalists and not a meaningful method of dialogue between disparate people. According to the AP, Twitter estimates there were more than 50 million tweets about the London Olympics.

All that fed a constant dialogue about what happened, what was happening right then, and what was coming up.

NBC's decision to live-stream every competition through its website fed this. Twenty percent of U.S. Olympic viewers watched two or more events at the same time via different platforms at least once. Some watched on their iPads and tablets. Some watched on phones. Many turned it into an interactive experience, texting, tweeting and posting. All in all, there were 63.1 million live video streams downloaded, more than four times that of Beijing.

Young viewers increased by about 30 percent. NBC, reportedly nervous about scooping itself as these Games began, found that viewers who knew the result already were more likely to tune into its prime-time telecast, which often included, hours later, sit-down interviews with the stars of the day.

"Nobody cares about the Olympics" - it is a familiar refrain early in Olympic years, even early in Olympic summers. The truth to this, I suppose, lies in the disdain of our most meat-and-potato sports fans, who indeed value news about Jamar Chaney's hamstring more than they do any story about a South African running on two metal legs.

But the premise that no one reads or cares about it - which emboldened the previous owners of this newspaper to cut our traditional live coverage from their budget this summer - is clearly false. And for an enterprise in constant search of attracting new readers - and thus new advertising dollars - covering the Olympics would seem to be one of the better bets this media outlet - or any seeking to survive in this evolving, where's-it-headed-next industry - could make.

The Winter Olympics are in Sochi, Russia, in 2014. Rio de Janeiro, only an hour ahead of us, hosts the next Summer Games in 2016. Who knows what social media will look like by then. Or what this rapidly evolving media industry will look like, too.

We ought to be there. Because clearly, people do care about the Olympics. All of it. No matter what they say beforehand.

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