08/08/2012 05:23 pm ET Updated Oct 08, 2012

Watching The Olympics on TV Is Still About Collective Participation

Viewers well versed in media expect delivery-on-demand for major events. This has created a peculiar tension when viewing prime-time Olympic coverage consisting of competitions that previously took place throughout the day, but which were not broadcasted live on TV. After the first week of events, it appears that audiences are tuning-in to NBC's evening broadcast in larger numbers than previous Olympics, and this has become the network's main justification for holding out on selected events until prime-time.

But if media is to make the most of the possibilities that emerging technology offers with its growing connectivity, then justifying a major network's bottom line with the greatest viewership of the Olympics is unacceptable during a time when a clear demand for highly individualized experience is also linked to some type of collective experience. The inability to adapt quickly to these expectations is a real challenge to corporate media. And, as a result, NBC's delayed prime-time broadcasts fall somewhere in-between real-time and delayed-time.

From a theoretical point of view this tension is quite interesting given that just-in-time delivery of content is by now a convention and a growing industry of its own that clearly challenges conventional viewership. NBC's prime-time Olympic programming, at best, serves the process of public acknowledgement of events that took place earlier during the day, given that many people in the U.S. already know the results but, nevertheless, find the need to see it happen with their own eyes as a collective during a specific time.

Prime-time, then, becomes a space for collective experience, and the recorded broadcast takes on the appearance of just-in-time delivery. It becomes a simulation of a live event when Twitter and Facebook are used effectively by the networks and viewers to share their thoughts as things "appear" to happen on TV. This is make-believe at its best.

This is why on Thursday and Friday nights of last week, Twitter exploded with commentaries from fans during the taped broadcast of Missy Franklin's and Michael Phelps's final swimming events; both winning gold, and certainly making history. Phelps retires with a total of 22 medals, and Franklin begins her career with four medals, three gold -- a clear statement of a promising career by the young athlete. Facebook and Twitter have consistently played the same role for all consecutive nights including Sunday, when Jamaica's Usain Bolt took the gold for the 100 meter final in Track & Field.

All of this makes evident that NBC's prime-time broadcast is a transitional activity towards a more networked experience of major social events. This is quite a challenge to understand when it is commonly argued that people no longer come together for prime-time viewing. This may be true for pre-recorded productions, which in the past served the purpose of collective experience that could be discussed the next day over the water cooler. But watching one's favorite sitcom is very different from watching a major global sport event such as the Olympics.

NBC should not pat themselves on the back thinking that as long as the ratings are up things will be OK. The fact is that real-time communication will push networks to accept just-in-time delivery to be their main form of programming especially for sport events, making recorded broadcasts a production that falls somewhere between documentary, reality TV, and straight-forward news reporting.