Some years ago I watched a strange football broadcast in a large pub in London. A world cup game, I think. For some reason the screens in one of the two rooms were running about three seconds behind the screens in the other. (Probably something to do with a terrestrial versus satellite transmission.)
It was hopeless. The reactions of the punters created a sort of reverse echo, ruining the spectacle for those of us in the delayed part of the pub. Some squashed into the other bit, others just left.
I was reminded of that while watching the Olympic opening ceremony on Saturday morning.
These days, if you’re a Twitter person, watching something like the opening ceremony means, of course, mixing the TV with considered analysis – or banter, really – with other Twitter people. It’s not altogether unlike the chatter in a pub.
But before long it was as if those of us watching on Sky and those of us watching on Sky’s free-to-air channel, Prime, were in different rooms in that pub. Prime had commercials breaks, and they’d clearly decided that to ensure viewers didn’t miss anything, they’d in effect pause their feed, and resume after the break. That meant that the viewers on Prime became steadily further behind those of us who were watching on paid Sky Sports subscriptions.
According to one time-keeping observer, the delay peaked at about 32 minutes. That apparently dropped to about 20 minutes by the end, which meant that Prime had indeed snipped out some of the event (which, after an initial denial, the channel acknowledged, apologising for the “misinformation”).
It could be that Prime made the cuts as a response to the online outcry, in an effort to haul back some of the lag. At moments on Twitter, there seemed as much complaint about the Prime coverage as there was commentary on the event itself. (Which, by the way, was a mad, wondrous thing, I reckon.)
Tweeters watching Prime adopted a hashtag - #PrimeUnderclass – so that they could continue to talk about the unfolding industrial revolution in the Olympic stadium without the future-spoilers from Sky patricians chatting about the Queen jumping from a helicopter.
Perhaps the most interesting lesson of the whole episode is the impact of social media on live television.
While time-shifted is the big trend – hard-drive recorders, watch-again facilities, downloads and so on – the live watching experience gets a shot of adrenalin from Twitter, Facebook and live blogs. Sport and news have little need for those supporting functions, but it also applies to cultural events, such as the opening ceremony on Saturday, or concerts, and so on.
Even first-run new TV shows become shared viewing experiences when a bunch of people are quipping away as they go. It’s just another argument for getting telly imports on screen as quickly as possible in New Zealand – all that chatter online just fuels enthusiasm to watch immediately, by whatever means possible.
But in the case of the #PrimeUnderclass debacle, my guess is the decision to stagger-delay the event was well-intentioned. Surely a lag of a few minutes is a lesser evil than the loss of content? And what difference does it really make – no one will know. And hardly anyone would have known, or kicked up a fuss, if they weren’t simultaneously watching another, internet-connected screen – were it not for the fact that another part of the pub is heckling away at the future.
But if Prime and Sky in New Zealand were feeling at all bruised by the criticisms, they cpimight console themselves by searching #NBCfail on Twitter. The US network has been taking a battering from Olympic viewers over its coverage.