By Alicja Gados

If you followed the Olympics in Rio this summer, you may have noticed that you had to essentially be glued to your couch at certain hours to catch live coverage, sports highlights, and results.  In the age where media is largely consumed on smartphones, why hasn’t this changed?

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is keeping a tight grip on sharing live Olympic video content on social media. The idea is, in essence to protect broadcast and sponsor rights, and the revenue from it. This is not new for these summer Olympics in Brazil 2016, people have been demanding social media presence from the Olympics since 2012.

The Olympics, which are very much like a news event, are a great event to be pushed on social media. Many of us were anxiously waiting how our favourite athlete or team is doing in a certain event, but we must stick to the strict timeline of when the network will release the footage. Often, we don’t find out results until they are already over.  This is a strange way to consume news in an era where information spreads like wildfire and breaking news is available as it happens.

IOC’s strict social media news prohibit outside brands or news agencies showcasing all of that exciting Olympic athleticism which is the real reason we like to watch these sports in the first place.  It’s much more interesting to watch the technique how a champion swimmer won their gold medal rather than listen about this technique described in a news article.  Of course, many news agencies did what they could to feature the latest Olympic news, but it’s not quite the same reading about it as it is watching it live.

The restrictions make it impossible to relive a certain exciting athletic event. If you missed it while it was broadcast on television, you’ve missed it for good.

If you try to search for any Olympic content on social media, you’ll be directed to live stream on whatever platform it’s hosted on. You’re only other option is the old fashioned way, to watch it on TV the hour that it’s released. 

Why the restriction?

This restriction is reminiscent of the way TV used to be consumed, the days when the family sat around the television at certain times, on a strict schedule.  This type of entertainment was push rather than pull style. Sure, those days may be romantic and there is a certain charm of having to be there to witness it on TV, but this is no longer how media and entertainment are consumed. With information and media broadcast from many social media platforms at once, on demand programming available at any time you want, social media has become the go to resource for live coverage. The idea of sitting down in front of the TV for hours has become dated.

Not like the US election coverage

For comparison, and on the other side of the spectrum, is the heated political battle for the US presidency. Incumbents Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are constantly the subject of social media content, which comes both directly from the source and from every other news agency, and everyone else. It’s simply impossible to get away from, and you can watch speeches, debates, public opinion and watch the election unfold in real time. You can relive all your favourite moments, too. This rich and diverse coverage on social media is driving interest, political passion, among electorate and politicians, media and everyone else. The presence of social media ‘selling’ these events is ultimately what pushes us to watch the event in real time. It’s simply how we consume media these days.

How we watch sports has changed, too. 

What is going on?

The network, NBC has the digital and broadcast rights to the Olympics in the U.S. NBC and IOC have decided to join forces to regulate the social media broadcasts of the games. The games were delayed for viewing for primetime only, and includes a ban on gifs and other short format videos.  Essentially, this amounts to a type of social media blackout.

Spectators were allowed to post footage on their media channels for their own personal use, but the right to publish live footage or videos was not allowed.

The protected rights to published media, which are protected with the GIF and video ban, bring in a lot of revenue for the Olympic committee. 

Apparently, in the US, the NBC delayed the opening ceremonies by one to four hours, depending if you were on the east or west coast.  This caused some major confusion, because people were tweeting about the event in real time.  Delaying live events for prime time may help sell ads, but it doesn’t help win fans, or help fans experience the games.

Most social Olympics ever in Canada

In Canada, CBC/Radio-Canada, TSN, Sportsnet and RDS have the broadcasting rights.

In Canada, restriction or not, this has been the most social Olympics ever. Athletes are using platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to connect with fans and audiences. Millenials were very engaged and up to date with what Canadian athletes were doing, because many had followed the games exclusively on social media. 

The moment when Canadian Olympic swimmer Penny Oleksiak discovered she won a medal was very popular. Image from Twitter account. 

The moment when Canadian Olympic swimmer Penny Oleksiak discovered she won a medal was very popular. Image from Twitter account. 

Even though live coverage was restricted in Canada, we still managed to have the mmost social Olympiocs ever, with many athletes growing their social media following. Check out these statistics:

Between London 2012 and Rio 2016, Team Canada’s Facebook grew to nearly 900,000, up 263 per cent, and the twitter account grew by 1505 per cent to over 600,000 followers (Source: The Globe and Mail).

Regardless of how the Olympics controls live coverage, social media has had an effect on how people consume and experience the Olympics.  Instead of huddling in front of the TV like in the old days, athletes are helping people experience the games through their eyes, forging a personal connection and boosting the popularity of the games.

No longer do we rely pre packaged programming for news or entertainment is a thing of the past. Media companies still edit the highlights of the day’s events to make them perfect for primetime viewing, but it’s no longer as important to viewers. Digital channels have pushed networks to cover more live events, and makes these channels work harder because they have to compete for your viewership like never before.

Like it or not, you can try to stop and regulate viewership or videos and certain aspects of the games but you can’t stop the social media train from broadcasting information and making information available to everyone. It’s just how the way the world works these days, and it will only get more and more important.

There may be hope for 2020, as the IOC has announced the Olympic channel will be launched, and will showcase content from around the world and will allow fans to easily share across social media.  Change is in the air.


Sources and Further Reading