Instant Olympics results via social networking spoils prime-time coverage for viewers

United States gymnast Gabby Douglas won the individual all-around competition, accepted her Olympics gold medal and shared the news via Twitter.

"Wow, such an amazing experience," she wrote on the social networking site. "Thank you all for your support, love and prayers."

She tweeted. News organizations tweeted. Even Oprah Winfrey tweeted. And within minutes, it became clear to almost anyone who accessed Twitter Thursday afternoon that Douglas had made history by becoming the fourth U.S. woman to win gold in the all-around.

The problem being, it took NBC another seven hours to show the all-around competition's conclusion via tape delay during its prime time coverage when ratings are highest. Using tape delays is necessary because London is five hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time.

The 30th Olympic Games, with many of the most popular events shown on NBC hours after they end, is leaving viewers with a vexing dilemma.

They can watch the events having already known who won, or they can try to avoid social networking, news Web sites and broadcast television in the hopes of not having the excitement spoiled for them ahead of time. It's not easy, particularly on Twitter, where major news flows through feeds rapidly, mere minutes after the events take place.

The problem is even worse on the West Coast, where the coverage is shown three hours after it airs on the East Coast, making spoilers even easier to stumble upon.

Greg Safko, the organizer of the South Carroll Tri-To-Win Triathlon, tried to watch the swimming events at the Olympics last week without spoilers. It didn't always work. He heard via word of mouth that Ryan Lochte bested Michael Phelps in last weekend's 400-meter individual medley before it aired during NBC's evening coverage.

"That," he said, "was extremely disappointing."

Safko is getting used to it. He inadvertently discovered Tour de France stage results earlier this summer before the events were shown in the United States via tape delay.

"Most others I've talked with on this very issue would definitely prefer not to know before events are broadcast," said Safko, the Joanna M. Nicolay Melanoma Foundation President.

Yet on Twitter, Olympics correspondents have unabashedly offered real-time updates, often without apology.

Associated Press writer Jenna Fryer, covering the Olympics in London, told her nearly 40,000 followers to avoid Twitter if they wanted to watch prime-time coverage without spoilers.

"Sorry folks, not my fault NBC isn't showing things you want to watch live," Fryer wrote via Twitter after the Lochte-Phelps showdown was reported hours before being shown on broadcast television. "But it is my job to tweet and report on things as they happen."

The purpose of using social media as part of marketing is not to talk to customers but to listen to them, said social media expert Jeannine Morber, of Morber Marketing Group in Westminster.

The Olympics have posed a unique problem, she said. Readers shouldn't be surprised if their news sources are doing what they have always done via social networking.

"If it's an American reporter in a totally different time zone," she said, "I think they have to respect their readers and not post anything. But if I am here in the States and I'm following a British reporter, he is going to report what he is going to report. It's up to me and who I follow."

This is the first Summer Games where Twitter has been a significant driver of news, Morber said. Plus, more events in prime-time are being tape delayed in London than Beijing eight years ago. For example, swimming event finals, scheduled for the morning in Beijing, were shown live on NBC at night.

It's not just a social networking issue. ESPN regularly scrolls Olympics updates real-time on a scroll at the bottom of the screen. News broadcasts have also shared results, albeit with a caveat.

"TV stations are very good about warning you that they are giving results," said Cathi Holibaugh, of Taneytown.

When they do, she simply turns the channel. She's managed to watch most of the Olympics without knowing who won ahead of time.

Other options exist for those wanting to see marquee events before prime-time coverage. Events are being shown live online at NBCOlympics.com for anyone with a subscription to a cable or satellite provider. All told, more than 3,500 programming hours of Olympics competitions are being shown online, according to a press release from Comcast. The online coverage Friday included swimming, men's basketball and tennis.

NBC is also showing several events live daily on TV, including soccer and basketball.

Carroll County Special Olympics swimming coach Michael Hurley said he has enjoyed the prime-time coverage despite the delays.

"I really appreciate the underwater camera work in the swimming competition," he said. "It gives me coaching tips. For example, I notice that swimmers keep their fingers together with cupped hands on the backstroke, but they spread their fingers in freestyle."

He does not use Twitter and has not had trouble with having results ruined for him. But it will remain an issue during week two, when Jamaican track star Usain Bolt is in action and the men's basketball team competes for a possible gold medal.

"You're going to have to be able to control yourself," Morber said. "You'll have to limit what you look at."

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