Sochi, Russia's largest resort city, sits in the shadow of the Caucasus Mountains, 5,178 miles away from New York. And with the 2014 Winter Olympics off and running, that vast distance poses a not-inconsequential time difference for viewers here in America. Families on the East Coast are forced to reckon not just with a nine-hour tape delay, but with the breakneck output of the Internet's instant-news economy. "Spoilers," it seems, are more or less unavoidable for those wishing to maintain a traditional viewing experience.
The problem isn't new, of course. We saw the same issue with spoilers reveal itself during NBC's heavily criticized broadcast of the 2012 Games in London. In one of the more embarrassing instances, a promo for The Today Show "ruined" the results of then-17-year-old swimmer Missy Franklin's gold medal victory in the 100-meter backstroke, six minutes before the event aired. Such gaffes reveal the logistical challenge of reconciling live news with non-live coverage. "The time difference doesn't allow for us to be live in prime time," said NBC Sports chairman Group Mark Lazarus, during a recent conference call. "We will package and curate it in a way that makes it a place that huge gatherings of family and friends want to gather and get together in front of their TV."
Traditional thinking suggests that those who wish to watch the Olympics unsullied in the comforts of their own home will be forced to choose between the lesser of two evils: navigate through a minefield of spoilers throughout the day, or refrain from the Internet altogether.
In 2012, news outlets like CNN seemed very concerned with ruining the results of the London games for fans. Avoiding spoilers even has its own WikiHow. In 2014, however, the idea that the Internet and services like Twitter are still ruining Olympics for fans may quickly be becoming a dated notion.
While some outlets are still proceeding with an abundance of caution online, national publications like USA Today are charging headfirst into social media. "We will be posting stories, sending breaking news alerts, tweeting and posting to Facebook with all the latest news on Team USA and the Olympic Games—as it happens in Sochi," said the newspaper.
USA Today is far from alone. When asked for how they planned on covering the Games, ESPN echoed a similar strategy. "As far as how ESPN is handling Olympics news, our MO has always been serving sports fans by reporting and breaking news live and in real time as they happen," said an ESPN representative in an email to Fast Company. "We will continue to do so, including on social platforms."
Indeed, what we are likely witnessing is a tectonic shift in the way media companies cover global events like the Olympics. Between television, the web, and mobile, there are now more platforms than ever to reach viewer eyeballs. While Olympic highlights throughout the day are still cobbled together for NBC's primetime coverage—as has always been the case—technology has made it so that we're less dependent than ever on someone like Bob Costas to tell us what, exactly, happened.
For what it's worth, Twitter doesn't seem particularly concerned with ruining any feel-good happy endings of the Game's athletes, and may even view the spoiler as a good thing that actually enriches the viewing experience later. "I personally think we've culturally moved a bit beyond spoilers on the web," Rachael Horwitz, head of Twitter's consumer PR team, told Fast Company . "If you go to Twitter during your workday and you see that the opening ceremonies are generating a lot of buzz, and the accounts that you follow are tweeting a bunch about the uniforms, or something really funny that someone did, or someone had an amazing performance, we have a sense that that kind of buzz potentially makes people more likely tune in later that evening."
The advent of new communication channels does, however, puts the onus on monolithic broadcasters to adapt the way they handle coverage. And it presents multifold new opportunities as well: NBC Digital, for example, says it has dialed up its streaming capacity to account for a tidal wave of viewers, and is in the midst of broadcasting over 1,000 hours of coverage live on NBCOlympics.com.
An abundance of viewer options across every channel imaginable may be one small reason why media concern over the spoiler—born out of the friction between real-time news and old media's limitations—may finally be eroding; perhaps it will soon go the way of ski ballet, a relic of a recent past.