With three nights of record ratings, NBC's coverage of the London Summer Olympics is winning on the prime-time TV front.
But it looks to be losing in major ways in the world of social media, as a rising tide of complaints about the network's policy of tape-delaying major events — such as those involving Michael Phelps — appear on Twitter, accompanied by such hashtags as #nbcfail and #nbcdelayed.
The disconnect between NBC's success on TV and failure in social media highlights not only the landmark transformation taking place in media these days, but also the radical change in audience expectations and behavior, analysts say.
Like many media companies, NBC has tried to lure viewers to its digital platforms with promises of providing information 24/7, whenever the consumer wants it. But now, the network is feeling the heat in social media for not feeding the very on-demand appetite it helped create
"This kind of reaction to tape delay in Olympics coverage has always been there. People have never liked it," says Jeff Jarvis, a professor at City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism who has emerged as one of NBC's most outspoken critics.
"But now with Twitter, you can hear the complaints from the people formerly known as the audience," he adds. "And not only do you hear the complaints, but you can hear the results [in social media], which makes people even madder. 'I know what's going on, but NBC won't let me see it for hours.'"
Some viewers weren't thrilled with not seeing the opening ceremonies in real time Friday unless they went to a BBC live stream, for example, in the afternoon. But it wasn't until Phelps' failure to win a medal Saturday was widely reported in digital and social media — and viewers realized they could not see the event until later that night — that the backlash against NBC's tape replay strategy started to build.
By Sunday, flames of discontent were being fanned online by entities such as the Twitter account @nbcdelayed, which tweeted: "BREAKING: American colonists announce independence, King to respond."
Jarvis says the change from the last Olympics is mainly in the size of the audience reading and responding to such missives from the masses.
"We had Twitter four years ago, but it wasn't nearly as big," he says. "Facebook was big, but now it's gigantic. And I think there is now a different biorhythm in media and entertainment in terms of what people expect."
Jarvis stoked the flames at his own blog, BuzzMachine.com, and the Huffington Post on Monday with a wide-ranging analysis of NBC's failures including the charge that American viewers "are being robbed of the opportunity to share a common experience with the world in a way that was never before possible," because of NBC's tape-delayed coverage.
But NBC counters that it is offering Americans the chance to see all competition in real time.
"Every minute of competition is live on NBCOlympics.com," Adam Freifeld, NBC Sports' vice president of communications, said Monday from London. "And the first two days of the games there was more than 40 hours of live coverage across NBC and our cable networks of NBCSN, MSNBC, CNBC and Bravo."
Freifeld points to the three nights of record ratings as evidence that tens of millions of viewers are enjoying NBC's coverage on TV. He says NBC digital is setting record as well indicating that viewers are coming to places like NBCOlympics.com during the day.
Jarvis says the problem with the live stream at NBCOlympics.com is a "TV Guide one," in that there are no listings telling you in advance when, say, Phelps swims.
"They did show Phelps' defeat live Saturday, but how did you know in advance that it was there at the time it happened?" Jarvis says. "How do I know, 'Oh, oh, in two minutes from now, Phelps is going to swim?'"
Freifeld says viewers can sign up at NBCOlympics.com for text messages alerting them to major events, like the swimming competitions, five minutes before they take place.
NBC does have answers to some of the criticism, but it seems as if the battle lines have hardened and no real dialogue is taking place between the network and its critics. Jarvis is not optimistic about NBC changing its policy, and he bases that in part, he says, on a complaint NBC lodged against a British reporter.
Over the weekend, at the network's behest, Twitter suspended the account of Guy Adams, a journalist at London's The Independent newspaper. He had exhorted readers to complain about the tape delays to NBC executive Gary Zenkel — and included Zenkel's corporate email in the report.
Delayed coverage is also causing issues for NBC newscasts at affiliates like Baltimore's WBAL as they try to balance reporting Olympic results without harming prime-time ratings.
So far, WBAL has treated Olympics results as a TV or movie critic would "spoilers" in a preview. During the sports portion of its early-evening newscasts, viewers are warned that results are going to be flashed on the screen, so that they can look away if they want. The sportscasters and anchors never announce the results.
"We will continue to do it that way to respect the people who don't want to know," WBAL general Manager Dan Joerres said Monday.
"But we certainly are not withholding information," he adding, pointing to the results posted online and shown silently in the onscreen graphic during the sportscast.
Mary Beth Marsden, afternoon anchor at WBAL radio, said Monday that her station was reporting Olympics results fully as they are known throughout the day.
She acknowledges herself being "one of those griping" about NBC's tape-delayed coverage.
Overall, even Jarvis acknowledges that NBC Universal is "giving viewers a great deal live in video on the net and in apps."
The irony of the complaints on Twitter and Facebook is that people are using new social media to say how mad they are that NBC is messing with their old-media, live-viewing TV experience.
"That says there's still an affection for the old-fashioned broadcast channel TV experience," Jarvis says.
"So, in a way, NBC would be wise to see this complaint as a valentine. But because they're not listening, they're squandering an opportunity to superserve viewers. People still want a super experience on the broadcast channels. And that could be good news for NBC."