Broadcast delays spoil Olympic results


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It's a test of agility, a feat of endurance, an exercise in willpower -- watching the Olympics in prime time, without having the results ruined earlier in the day.

Because London is five hours ahead of Pittsburgh, many of the events are taking place in the morning and afternoon, East Coast time. NBC is choosing to delay the broadcast of marquee events until prime time, meaning that anyone with a smart phone, a television, a Facebook account, or just a chatty co-worker, can inadvertently find out the winners ahead of time.

And just like that -- poof! -- four hours of prime time television drama up in smoke.

"I wish that I didn't get notified about the results -- it takes away from the suspense," said Robbie Denove, 20, of Monroeville, who has had Olympic events spoiled via USA Today news alerts on his phone. "But there's not much I can do about it unless I shut myself off from the world."

Mr. Denove, a Penn State student who is interning at Heinz, was enjoying a sunny lunch at PPG Place Monday with fellow intern Connor Walters. Since Mr. Walters is without a television for the summer, he is happy to follow the Olympics in real time via Twitter with no fear of spoilers.

No man is an island, however: Mr. Walters mentioned the fact that Michael Phelps was upset in the 400-meter individual medley in a Saturday afternoon phone call with his mother, spoiling the results for her.

To some extent, Olympic fans had the same issue four years ago, with events in Beijing taking place many hours before they were broadcast.

But people weren't nearly as connected then -- smart phones weren't as prevalent, Facebook was still a toy for college students and Twitter was in its infancy.

News sites still reported results of Olympic events in real time, but "I thought they did a better job four years ago of not being so blatant," said Aaron Asher, of Squirrel Hill.

Mr. Asher doesn't have a Facebook account and isn't on Twitter, but he managed to have the results of the women's gymnastics preliminary contest ruined when he checked his Yahoo e-mail account on Sunday. The Yahoo homepage was prominently featuring the story of the day -- that Jordyn Wieber had not qualified for the all-around competition.

"I did watch, but not as closely or as intently as had I not known the outcome," he said.

However, a psychology study from the University of California, San Diego, suggests that spoilers may not be as unpleasant as they seem. The study, published last August, found that -- contrary to conventional wisdom -- people who read stories where the ending had been spoiled actually enjoyed the stories more. This held true even for "ironic twist" and mystery stories that depend on suspense.

The phenomenon may also hold true for Olympic events, said Jonathan Leavitt, a psychology doctoral student at UCSD and co-author of the study. If the viewer still watches the event even after having the results spoiled, they will experience it differently, but not necessarily less pleasurably.

"The best theory I have is that you're less narrowly focused on figuring out what will happen and you understand what's going on much better," said Mr. Leavitt. "For instance, if somebody starts out in the lead, you have a different response, like 'Oh, that person's starting out too fast.' You feel smarter, you're less fooled, you're understanding it better."

Indeed, spoilers do not seem to be affecting NBC's viewership. The average viewership for the first three days of the Olympics of 35.8 million was the highest ever recorded.

NBC has received some criticism for choosing to tape-delay events, rather than broadcasting them live during their daytime coverage. The Los Angeles correspondent for the British newspaper, The Independent, was even banned from Twitter for tweeting the email address of the president of NBC Olympics in the course of complaining about the network's coverage.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette also found some social media retribution this weekend after posting a picture of a dejected Michael Phelps on the Post-Gazette Facebook page, along with a status update noting that Ryan Lochte had won gold with Mr. Phelps finishing fourth.

Dozens of angry comments followed the post, along the lines of "Thanks for ruining it for us" and "guess I don't need to watch TV anymore today." Others weighed in supporting the Facebook post, with comments such as "I love how people are complaining that a newspaper is posting news too quickly" and "please post because we do not all have time to watch the events."

The Post-Gazette announced later Saturday that it would not post spoilers on its Facebook feed, instead directing readers to its special Olympic webpage (www.post-gazette.com/olympics). The Post-Gazette also is not posting Olympic news on its twitter feed, though sports reporter Brady McCollough, who is in London covering the games, is tweeting those results.

For Tyler Perrine, of the North Side, the problem has not been his own media consumption, but that of his fiancee, Elena Henry.

The two have watched tape-delayed sporting events in peace before -- Mr. Perrine regularly records Penguins games to watch them commercial free -- but thus far, the Olympics have not gone so smoothly.

Sitting down Sunday night to watch the women's gymnastics, Ms. Henry checked her iPhone and promptly told Mr. Perrine that Ms. Wieber hadn't qualified for the all-around competition. They still watched, but "the excitement wasn't nearly what I thought it would be," he signed.

A day earlier, the same iPhone had been to blame for spoiling the 400-meter individual medley swimming results.

"I didn't even watch that one," he sighed.

tvradio - olympicsfeatures

Anya Sostek: asostek@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1308. First Published July 31, 2012 4:00 AM


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