With each passing day we are moving to a world in which our shared cultural experiences are actually less shared. As others have noted, our multi-channel and multi-site universe has created audience fragmentation. We don’t all watch the same shows, read the same books, or listen to the same music. Yes, major blockbuster shows give us the illusion of a shared experience but (a) these are rare things, (b) they are not as ubiquitous as these blockbusters would have been a decade ago.
The fragmentation has many benefits not the least of which is that it allows our individuality to be expressed and mirrored in the cultural products we consume. This should not be read as a lament to a better day even as we recognize the fundamental shift.
The last bastion was once sports. Live sports was an experience that was shared live rather than accessed on-demand. It’s temporality anchored its relevance to the moment. When you watched the Superbowl or the Stanley Cup finals you had a sense that there was a significant community engaging in that same experience (and, importantly the community was large).
The Olympics have always been a nation-building event, despite its commercial elements. By defining the dichotomy between us and them, the Games are the ultimate community-building event. There may be ugly sides to rampant nationalism which occasionally appears and, there is, no doubt, considerable cross-country support for athletes, especially those who seem to embody the Olympic spirit.
Cheering on your country’s athlete as he or she goes for gold really brings people together. If we are not watching it together when it happens, is it possible to have the same effect?
There is a lot happening at the Olympics and the last several games have highlighted the challenge for broadcasters who are trying to show people what they want but also provide a large audience for their advertisers.
In the 2012 Olympics the time change is adding to the difficulties. Live is now not at a convenient time for a mass audience but an interested audience is wanting to see it live. NBC has particularly been criticized for its coverage decisions — NBC is actually holding back some coverage for their evening broadcast. Hoping that these marquee events will draw a crowd, at the same time denigrating the live experience. Of course, the information is still available through other channels for those who are interested (even on NBC news) and many interested viewers can casually pick up the information as they go about their daily life.
A great example was last night. Minutes before Frankin was going to swim for gold (having just swam 10 minutes ago), NBC aired a commercial for Good Morning that featured Franklin with her gold medal. Oops!
The result is that seeing the event is no longer a shared cultural experience. Some people managed to learn in real-time, others heard on the news (perhaps when they were focused on other things) and others saw it on the repeat. This is important because without a heightened emotional state the experience is going to be less important.
It is not just about time zones. Have you not thought to yourself, I am interested in ; I should be able to watch all of it? It could be table tennis, or swimming, or wrestling. The networks could provide it through cable or on the internet so we could watch only what we want. We are now trained in on-demand experiences and this makes creating a mass audience for the Olympics even more difficult than it was in the past.
Where that leaves us
By giving up the authenticity of the live event we effectively lose an opportunity for shared experiences. That really only leaves major news stories (meaning disasters) as events that we all share together.
What do you think about the coverage? Is sports becoming something less important to see live?