Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Online News Spoils Tape-Delayed Olympics, and What to Do About It

In sports, the headline can't be "SUPER BOWL COMPLETED AS PLANNED YESTERDAY."

NBC's prime-time tape delay of the Olympics and the ever-increasing advent of online news have created a unique dilemma (New York Times):

At 6:24 last night, more than an hour and a half before NBC began its tape-delayed coverage of the Winter Olympics, The Times reported on its home page that Lindsey Jacobellis, a popular American, had veered off course in the semi-finals of the snowboard cross and was eliminated from medal contention.
It was news, but the kind of news some readers wish the paper would hide behind a “spoiler alert” until they have had a chance to be held in suspense by the television coverage.  Jacobellis’s heartbreak wasn’t shown until 9:33, more than three hours after The Times reported it.
“Could you please ask the editor of the front Web page to not name the winners within the headlines/sub-headlines?” asked Ken Waters of Phoenix.  Matt Gooch of Harrisonburg, Va. said he was disappointed when The Times reported the results of the men’s downhill before NBC showed the event.  “This is not Taliban news, nor TARP news, or even Paula Jones type news,” Gooch said.  “There is no meaning to this except the anticipation and suspense that sports viewers feel watching the event live.  Please help me understand why your organization needs to spoil the experience.”

I often like to watch sporting events on slight delay on my DVR (maybe an hour into the game) to be able to fast-forward through the commercials. But on those times when I've accidentally discovered the final score while checking my laptop or talking to a friend, the experience has been severely compromised. With many Olympic events shown on tape delay (especially when they're held in Asia or Europe), the potential for "ruining it for yourself" grows exponentially.

The departure from spoilers for, say, movies is most interesting to me. An online headline for a movie review will have the movie's title and some allusion to the plot, the twist, the acting, or the production values. However, it won't blare, "THE GUY IN TITANIC DIES AT THE END."

In sports, the score is the story. The front page of the newspaper doesn't bellow "SUPER BOWL COMES TO A CLOSE" in 60-point bold font. So a headline that doesn't give away the ending isn't a headline at all.

The best solution I can think of is adding some slight transactions costs to getting Olympic news. The New York Times' public editor, in the above-cited blog post, alludes to how the Times thought about putting the headlines a click away from the main homepage but decided against it. Or the headline could be purposefully vague: "Disappointment in the Snowboard Cross (Spoiler)," to be rewritten once the event airs. The hard-core fans can get the story now, while the TV-suspense-loving bunch can safely stay away.

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