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TV Ratings

April tv

On Friday April 7, the New York Times Crossword offered this clue for a six-letter answer at 36-down: “When people meters are used.”  I am embarrassed to admit it was my wife who solved it for me: SWEEPS.

I have three reactions to this clue:

  1. Are People Meters really so well-known for delivering TV ratings that they can be used in a general interest crossword puzzle, even on a Friday?
  2. Not to get too nerdy, but People Meters are not used for sweeps. “Sweeps” are used to measure local markets that don’t have year-round measurement so local markets with People Meters by definition don’t have sweeps.  Paper diaries produce sweeps in non-People Meter markets. No wonder I didn’t get it! I was overthinking it.
  3. Huh. Sweeps. I haven’t thought about sweeps in years.

There was a time when TV was obsessed with sweeps.  The networks would cram all their best programming into the four sweeps periods of November, February, May and July because the ratings for these months would set advertising rates for local TV stations for the rest of the year.  If you had a character who was going to be killed, married or born, you’d do it during sweeps.

Not anymore.  Sweeps ceased to be a major factor a dozen years ago when Nielsen implemented Local People Meters in the largest local markets. And when Nielsen finally phases out diaries next year, sweeps as we have known them for decades will essentially cease to exist.

The clearest indication of the anachronism of sweeps is all the good programming now being aired in April, which is not a sweeps month.  I would go so far as to argue that the week of April 16-23, definitely not a sweeps period, is the best single week for scripted television in years.  Consider the shows running last week: “Girls,” “Veep,” “The Leftovers,” “Silicon Valley,” “Billions,” “Better Call Saul,” “Dr. Who,” “The Americans,” “Fargo” and “Archer.”  My DVR is about to explode.

None of those series are affected by sweeps since they are on cable, but even the networks are serving up a cornucopia of quality programming this month: “Modern Family,” “blackish,” “New Girl,” “Saturday Night Live,” “The Daily Show With Stephen Colbert.” NBC is debuting its new Tina Fey show “Great News” later in the month.

And of course April has seen the return of the baseball season, the launch of the NBA and NHL play-offs, and the Masters.  That’s a lot of TV to watch considering that spring is here and those of us in northern climates are starting to enjoy longer, warmer days.

It’s not just a coincidence involving production schedules that so much great television is airing in April; TV’s evolving business model and its award schedule are responsible.

Until pretty recently, the average TV season comprised 22-26 episodes and the big money came when the series had accumulated about 100 episodes that could be sold for syndication.  So the traditional TV season would kick off in September and end in May, with the episodes essentially spanning those nine months.

A lot of network shows still aim for 22-week seasons but not all.  Season one of NBC’s “The Good Place” comprised only 13 episodes and seems destined for Netflix instead of syndication.  And 13-episode seasons are the norm on cable, although “Girls” and “Veep” have only ten.  When you have 10- or 13-episode seasons you might as well concentrate them in the fall or spring instead of stretching them through the year. If by the end of the series you only have 40 or 50 episodes you can sell it to Netflix or Amazon, which need the content.

Then there’s the impact of the Emmys.  To qualify for an Emmy at least half a season’s episodes need to run by May 31, so April becomes to TV what December is for the movies – the launching pad for award contenders. Presumably the thinking is that Emmy voters are more likely to remember prestige shows that recently aired than ones that ran last fall.

So what we really have now are two seasons of TV: the Money Season, filled with highly rated procedurals, football, prime time soap operas, awards shows, reality shows and other programs that pay the bills; and the Prestige Season, with critically acclaimed but low-rated “quality” television that bring honor and acclaim to a network.

I guess I shouldn’t complain but after months of desperately searching for something interesting to watch, I am now overwhelmed by the bounty of great shows.  I’ll probably still be catching up in July.

 

roger-goodell

The long football season comes to an end on Sunday with the annual nacho-fueled spectacle that is the Super Bowl.  It’s been a tough year for the NFL and its declining ratings, which means that it’s been a tough year for network television, which relies on the appeal of live viewing events to ward off cord-cutting.

The ratings decline was particularly severe in the beginning of the season when viewing declined by double-digit percentages.  Everyone had an opinion on this phenomenon, my own being that it was caused by an over-saturation of football, a lot of mediocre games, and a lack of positive story lines following the retirement of Peyton Manning, the suspension of Tom Brady and the underwhelming performance of other high-profile quarterbacks.

Of course anything as highly visible as pro football quickly becomes a huge target upon which we act out our personal obsessions, and in a white hot election year, the NFL quickly became tangled up in the political correctness debate, thanks to Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the national anthem.

I don’t think that the Kaepernick controversy actually eroded football viewing but it significantly infuriated many of the game’s most important constituencies and wiped out decades of effort by the league to wrap itself in the flag.  It got to a point where the right-wing Drudge Report was actively gloating each week about low NFL ratings.   When a lot of conservative white guys are actively rooting for your ratings to go down, you’re in a bad place if you’re a major sports league.

For its part, the NFL tried to blame the ratings slump on the election, the theory being, I suppose, that fans were out attending Donald Trump rallies on Sundays instead of staying home to watch football.   They claimed vindication of a sorts when it turned out that ratings were “only” down two percent in the six weeks after the election.    (Personally I think that it wasn’t until the final third of the season that the interesting storylines emerged.)

Better still for the NFL have been the play-offs.  When there was a good game the fans watched.  When the games stunk they didn’t.  For example, the thrilling Cowboys-Packers game on January 15, featuring two high-profile quarterbacks and a down-to-the-wire victory, was the most-watched NFL divisional play-off game ever.

For me, though, the relevant question is not why football ratings slumped this year but why they’ve soaring for the past few years in the first place?  In the last decade, football went from being a very popular sport to a hugely popular one.  For years and years the final episode of “M.A.S.H.” reigned supreme as the most-watched broadcast of all time, but since 2010 the Super Bowl has broken that record seven straight times.

And what’s particularly surprising about this rise in popularity is that it occurred just as we were coming to terms with the human cost of the concussions and other injuries inflicted on the players for our enjoyment.  Far from being turned off by literally watching fellow human beings beat their brains to mush, the American public actually embraced the sport even more enthusiastically.

For football to become more popular it had to expand its appeal beyond existing fans and convert casual viewers to regular ones.  It was able to do this via the rise in fantasy sports and online gambling, which gave fans a reason to watch more games with more intensity.  Even more important was the emergence of a new generation of charismatic quarterbacks who became the face of the league in the same way that Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan revived the fortunes of the NBA in the 1980s.

In other words, the biggest threat to football’s long-term health isn’t cord-cutting but the poor quality of quarterbacks coming out of college.  Because college football is increasingly dominated by spread offenses and no-huddle play, recent QB prospects are not prepared to lead an NFL offense.  With Manning retired and Brady, Aaron Rogers, Tony Romo and Drew Brees growing long in the tooth, the NFL has been unable to nurture a new generation of appealing superstars.

There will be one more chance to check-in on the health of the NFL this year.  If the Super Bowl sets yet another record for viewership this year, the league will be able to breathe a sigh of relief that football remains hugely popular despite the hiccups in the beginning of the season.  And with much of the nation wondering whether Tom Brady will be in a position to smash the Lombardi trophy into the face of Commissioner Roger Goodell, that might just happen.

 

 

 

brady-foot-locker-commercialI recently realized that although I never watch live TV and aggressively fast-forward through commercials, I am still surprisingly familiar with a lot of ads: the Tom Brady Foot Locker ad; The Amy Schumer Old Navy commercial; the Ariana Grande T-Mobile spot.  I know about Flo from Progressive, the GEICO lizard and the Toyotathon. How do I know about them if I never watch commercials?

The media would have us believe that no one watches ads. But obviously someone sees a lot of them.  Nielsen’s C3 rating is a measure of ad viewing and even with competition from smartphones and whatnot, those aggregate ratings are remarkably high.  Those of us who “never” watch commercials think it must be all those other dumbbells out there who engage in the retrograde practice of ad watching

Or is it?  How many of us are deluding ourselves?

Speaking for myself, if pressed, I would concede that, yes, I actually do watch some (ok maybe more than some) live TV through sports and news shows.  And even if you only watch one football game a week you are still exposed to a ton of ads.

Scripted programming is also a surprising source of ad viewing, even for those who give their DVR a good workout because people aren’t as disciplined as they think about fast-forwarding through ads.

Ever since Nielsen began measuring commercial viewing it has been a rule of thumb that only about half of viewers fast-forward through commercials. But if everyone believes they’re the ones who zip through the ads there’s going to be a good deal of self-deception.

The reality of those Nielsen numbers is that among DVR users, some skip all ads, some don’t bother to fast-forward at all, and a great many skip some ads but watch others depending on their mood, energy level, or affinity for the ad.

At my house, what usually happens when we’re watching a DVR’d show is that when the commercial pod comes on I’ll watch the first 15 or 20 seconds in a stupor before my wife yells that we’re watching a commercial for cripes sake.  I’ll fast forward, usually stopping half-way through the pod because I think the show is finally coming on, only to discover that what I thought was the resumption of the show was actually another ad.  So after watching another 15 seconds of ads, I’ll continue my fast-forwarding, and land about a minute into the show. Then I’ll have to rewind, arriving this time about a half-minute back into the middle of the commercials. Commercial avoidance is a lot of work.

Am I the only one who thinks the precision of the DVR fast-forward function has degraded over time?  When we had our first DVR I used to be able to zoom through the commercials and land precisely at the second when the show started up again.  Now I can end up half a minute ahead or half a minute behind the resumption of the show because the technology has become so imprecise.  In other words, I watch a lot more ads than I realize because I usually give up trying to avoid them.

The other reason I watch recorded commercials is that sometimes they are so good I actually want to watch them.  The new Amazon ad about the priest and the imam sending each other knee pads for praying is something I’ll always watch it to the end whenever it’s on.  Same with the iPhone 7 ad with balloons floating throughout the city accompanied by a beautiful cover version of “I will follow you.” In fact it’s a huge irony that the best TV ads are now being produced by the same high tech companies (i.e., Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and Amazon) that have done so much to undermine the television business model.  They, at least, seem to recognize the power of television advertising.

And speaking of digital media, one place I do not enjoy seeing ads is online.  A two-minute commercial pod during a streaming TV show seems so much longer than a two-minute ad on TV.  When you’re watching an ad on TV you can get up and walk into the kitchen for a glass of water or go to the bathroom, but when you’re watching an online commercial you feel compelled to sit in front of your PC or to hold your smartphone in your hand doing a slow burn until the show resumes.

In 1984, the most memorable moment during the Democratic primaries occurred when Walter Mondale confronted Gary Hart during a debate and said that his policies reminded him of the woman in the Wendy’s commercial who asked “Where’s the beef?” It was a devastating put-down because Hart’s proposals seemed Utopian and lacking specifics.  And it was particularly damaging because everyone understood the reference to the ad.

In 2016, there was no similar advertising reference that any politician could cite to undermine a rival because TV ads no longer offer a common cultural connection.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t watch a lot of ads.  In fact, when I’m fast-forwarding through the commercial pod I almost always recognize ads that I’ve already seen dozens of times.  There are more ads than ever before and even the biggest snob who claims never to watch commercials is kidding himself.

 

 

nielsen-diary

The recent news that Nielsen intends to eliminate paper diaries from the 140 ratings markets in which they are currently being used was met with relief in some quarters and with incredulity in others that such antediluvian methods were still being deployed to generate TV ratings this late into the 21st Century. For me, however, it brought back memories from more than a decade ago, when Nielsen first announced its intention to phase them out by 2011.

Paper diaries harken back to the dawn of the television age when there were only a handful of TV networks and viewers could generally be counted on to remember what channels they watched throughout the day.  But even back then, Nielsen founder Art Nielsen was always searching for a better electric measurement system that would record what people actually watched instead of what they said they watched.

Fast forward to June 2006.  Coming off a bruising fight with News Corp over the introduction of the Local People Meters that replaced these same paper diaries in the top ten local markets, Nielsen faced an even more implacable foe: the Internet.  People were beginning to find new ways to watch TV online and Nielsen needed a plan to adapt.

The result was an initiative called Anywhere Anytime Media Measurement, aka A2M2.  Looking back on that plan ten years later is a reminder of how visionary corporate aspirations are often restrained by more mundane considerations such as cost, technology and clients.  For example, it eventually turned out that clients weren’t interested in paying Nielsen to measure viewing outside the home (although that is apparently back on the table again.)  And when it further turned out that iPods (remember them?) wouldn’t become the primary vehicle for mobile viewing, Nielsen dropped the quest to develop a “go meter”.  On the plus side, Nielsen did eventually integrate Internet viewing into its ratings, and it did expand the number of local markets measured with People Meters.

The nut it couldn’t crack was the complete elimination of diaries.  Nielsen’s ratings CEO Susan Whiting had pushed for a deadline of introducing electronic measurement in all local markets by 2011, reasoning that the Nielsen staff would be motivated into action by an aggressive but firm deadline.  I was the PR representative on the A2M2 team so I can testify that they were motivated, and yet the 2011 deadline came and went with diaries as firmly entrenched as ever.

It wasn’t for lack of trying.  For at least a couple of years, the A2M2 team met every Friday morning via a conference call between the project managers in the company’s business headquarters in New York City and its technology headquarters in Oldsmar Florida.  They considered and tested a number of options, including a “mailable meter” that would be sent to viewers in lieu of a diary, placed next to a TV for a month where it would record what shows were being watched, and then returned to Nielsen for transcription.

A lot of work went into developing and testing this mailable meter, including research into packaging and shipping, but in the end it wasn’t good enough or cheap enough to replace diaries.  Because here’s the thing about diaries: they are really cheap. Nielsen lost money measuring many of these markets but it lost less than it would have with electronic measurement.

Here’s the other thing about diaries: they hung around so long because a lot of the people who pay the bills (i.e., the local stations) didn’t really want to change if it meant lower ratings.  TV viewers are most likely to mark down the big-name shows they “usually” watch and those are typically network shows, which inflates their ratings, so there was an incentive to maintain the status quo.

Or at least there used to be.  In a world of streaming, video playback, on-demand, channel-switching, premium cable stations, and limited attention spans, viewers are less likely to remember anything they watch, even the six o’clock news, and the diaries have finally lost any credibility among advertisers.   The incentive for abandoning diaries is finally larger than it is for keeping them.

What’s coming instead is something that’s been in Nielsen’s toolbox for years – fusing together different datasets, including return path data from set top boxes and data from other electronic sources like the National People Meter sample.   The flaws of set top box data are numerous, including a lack of representativeness and no information on which person in the house is watching, but at this point anything would be better than paper diaries.

The adoption of fusion data based on modeling different datasets is a significant development.  Until now, almost all TV ratings have been based on quantifiable data from scientifically selected panels that can be double-checked.  You can go back and see how many people actually pushed People Meter buttons in a market or wrote in particular programs in their diaries.  There’s even a room at Nielsen’s Oldsmar facility where station managers can go to review the individual diaries from their markets and confirm that, yes, this 53-year-old white woman really did watch “The Wheel of Fortune” instead of “Jeopardy.”  You can’t do that when data from set-top boxes are funneled into a computer, fused with other data, and modeled using an algorithm that only a handful of data scientists can understand.

Welcome to the 21st Century.  I’m sure my former Nielsen colleagues are thrilled they’ve finally convinced the market to phase out diaries, which symbolized the old, analog Nielsen in a digital age.  That’s an image no one wanted.

The new target date for eliminating diaries is now 2018, seven years after the first deadline.  But I’d bet on Nielsen making this one.  Not only is the technology there but so is the marketplace.

 

 

 

Ailes

So Roger Ailes has been ejected from his throne at Fox News and even barred from entering the News Corporation building.  You won’t find me shedding a tear because eight years ago he tried to get me fired.  What happened to me wasn’t as bad as what has allegedly happened to Fox’s own employees, but it did provide a brief glimpse of Fox’s modus operandi.

At the time of the events in question I was the chief spokesman for Nielsen and caught in the middle of one of those adolescent spitball fights that periodically erupts between media companies.  In one corner was Fox News, which had recently launched Fox Business News, a financial cable network that was supposed to do for financial reporting what they had done to political news.  In the other corner was CNBC, which Ailes had once led before being ushered out the door in 1996.

In 2007, Ailes launched Fox Business with great fanfare. This included a huge ad campaign that took direct aim at CNBC.  The day the network launched Fox even sent a reporter to stand outside CNBC’s headquarters and announce that it was “hunting season.”

The problem is that the shenanigans that made Fox News a political powerhouse didn’t work with financial viewers, who, since they are making investment decisions involving real money, tend to prefer their financial news to actually be fair and balanced.  The result was that the ratings for Fox Business News were in the toilet.  For the first two months it was on the air, it had an average audience of 6,300 viewers, about as many people as you’d see at a small town’s Thanksgiving Day football game.

The folks at CNBC and NBC were overjoyed by Fox’s flop but here’s the rub: under Nielsen rules, which had been carefully negotiated with all the media companies, no one can release viewing numbers with a rating below 0.1 (or 0.1 percent of the viewing audience), which in this case would have represented about 35,000 viewers.  This rule is designed to protect nascent cable networks so they aren’t humiliated by low numbers as they’re trying to get on their feet.

This rule usually protects networks that no one’s ever heard of, but Fox Business had launched with so much publicity that everyone in the TV world knew who they were.  CNBC wanted them humiliated but Nielsen wouldn’t release the 6,300 number and CNBC itself could have been sanctioned if they made it public.

Despite this rule, I was not surprised when someone actually did leak the number to New York Times media reporter Jacques Steinberg.  For years The Times and Fox had had a contentious relationship, to say the least.  Their values and biases were diametrically opposed and if there was any publication motivated and powerful enough to stand up to Fox it was The Times.

Steinberg’s call to Nielsen asking for confirmation came at the end of several weeks of furious calls among senior Nielsen, Fox and NBC executives, with NBC pressuring us to make the number public and Fox demanding that we squash the story.  Emotions were running high, with both networks acting like this story was on par with the Pentagon Papers.  Nielsen decided to stay neutral and enforce its own rule; eventually I ended up telling Steinberg that I would not confirm the number.  But I also reminded him that I would steer him away from erroneous information, which is what I would do for any reporter.

The resulting story reported the embarrassingly low numbers for Fox Business, with the Times sourcing it to “a person who saw those internal reports [and] vouched for their contents on Thursday, speaking on condition of anonymity.”  CNBC “declined comment” and Fox didn’t answer emailed inquiries.  I was quoted in the piece by name as confirming the rules around the minimum reporting requirements.

I don’t think I’m breaking any confidentiality agreements when I reveal that Fox is (or at least was) full of vindictive bullies.  Fox News almost always got great ratings but whenever there was a dip, Ailes and his lieutenants would call and complain, threatening some kind of unspecified retribution.  Eventually there would be a war or terrorist attack to drive Fox ratings back up and things would be fine again, but for those months when they were slumping Ailes would make life miserable for Nielsen.

Ailes and the rest of Fox News either believed, or pretended to believe, they were the victims of a left-wing conspiracy, which was ridiculous as far as Nielsen was concerned.  Our CEO David Calhoun was, according to public filings, a steady contributor to Republican candidates and the rest of the executive team on balance leaned moderate right, to the extend they leaned any way at all.  As for me, it’s right there on my LinkedIn profile that I worked for a right-wing Congressman, served in the 1984 Reagan-Bush campaign and spent time in the Reagan White House.  So I had no ideological problems with Fox News.

In any event, Ailes (or his PR team) was exorcised enough about the story to send Nielsen a letter, which, among other things, demanded my head.  The logic of the letter was that since CNBC and Fox had declined comment and I was quoted in the story explaining how the reporting requirements work, I must have been the one to have leaked the number to The New York Times.  I doubt that even Ailes believed this bit of fallacious logic; instead I think the purpose of the letter was to punish me for refusing to play along with Fox in killing the story, which would have been impossible without outright deception.

Surprise! Nielsen didn’t fire me, viewing this as another Ailes tantrum, and he seemed to get over his fit of pique pretty quickly since the name “Gary Holmes” never appeared in any future Ailes correspondence or conversations.

Jacques Steinberg was not quite as lucky.  Fox launched a nasty on-air campaign against him and at one point even featuring him in an anti-Semitically doctored photo.  Nice.  With Ailes gone will bullying these tactics also disappear?  We can only hope.

 

CNBC photo

Like many people, I split work between office and home.  And like many people, my office recently converted to an “open seating” plan.  There are no individual offices — we all sit at long benches with dual screens and movable laptops.

Fair enough.  Cramming that many people into one big room saves a lot of money on rent.  And I actually like turning to my colleagues and opining every time a stray thought comes into my head (although I’m not sure how much they welcome the distraction).

As it happens, my work station has a direct line of sight to a television monitor constantly tuned to CNBC.  On my first morning there, I glanced up and said, “Huh, that guy looks just like Andrew Ross Sorkin.  He’d been The New York Times beat reporter for one of my clients fifteen years ago, and we’d been pretty familiar with each other for a about year, but not so much since then.  Sure enough, a Wikipedia search confirmed that I’d somehow failed to notice he’d been been a “Squawk Box” co-host for FIVE YEARS! Oops.

Among all the time-wasters available to me — Facebook, Twitter, email, the beeps on my smartphone — nothing is as distracting as having CNBC directly in my face.  Even though the volume is off, I haven’t been able to train myself not to glance from the computer to the TV every thirty seconds.

What makes the problem worse is that the news on CNBC is so compelling.  Not the interviews, which I can’t hear anyway, but the crawl across the bottom with the stock market tickers.  As the proud holder of a 401K, I have a direct and urgent interest in the market’s performance. All it takes is a couple of days with 400-point plunges and I’m anxiously following the Dow Jones average for weeks.

I also find that I’m caught up in the silent dramas offered by CNBC advertisers.  There’s a frequently played ad featuring two women of a certain age being interviewed about a matter of concern.  Presumably health-related.  Probably cancer. Given their haircuts and the absence of men, I’d assumed this was a lesbian couple and that one of the partners had breast cancer.  Finally I couldn’t take it anymore.  Another Google search.  I was right about the cancer but wrong about the relationship.  They were sisters, and the one whom I thought was the patient — the one with the short gray hair — is actually the healthy one.

This raises an interesting question of how much CNBC should pay for those ad spots.  For years, CNBC bitterly complained to Nielsen that it didn’t measure traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and CEOs with TVs in their offices who presumably were watching the station all day but out of the Nielsen sample.  They had a point.  Among a certain demographic — a particularly attractive demographic — CNBC was the default channel throughout the day.

And yet now that I find myself a daily CNBC viewer, I am somewhat less sympathetic to that argument.  Yes, the TV is on all day, but the volume is off.  Even if Nielsen did measure offices, its meters wouldn’t pick up this programming because the audio codes it embeds in the video stream only work if the sound is on.

By the way, I should mention that this problem is not limited to CNBC.  I happen to be near a TV monitor tuned to CNBC, but our office also has monitors turned to CNN and Fox News, none of which have the volume up.  So Nielsen is an equal opportunity offender.

There’s a business reason why television with no volume is not included in the ratings.  Contrary to popular opinion, Nielsen doesn’t exist to tell us how many people are watching a TV show.  Rather, their job is to tell networks and advertisers how many people are consuming the commercials.  And there’s a legitimate question over whether a commercial that is seen but not heard is as valuable to an advertiser as one that actually is heard.

Having said that, I was interested enough to look up that cancer drug commercial about the two sisters, so there’s some value in viewing a silent ad.  On the other hand, I can no longer remember the name of the drug — so maybe that value is not 100%.  The difference between zero and 100% is obviously something for CNBC to negotiate with its advertisers.

If I were smarter, I’d ask to move to a workstation with my back to the monitor.  But the truth is, I actually like being distracted and don’t want to move.  Which is another sad commentary on the addictive quality of screens.

2014 Winter Olympic Games - Closing Ceremony

By almost every measure, NBC had a successful Winter Olympics.  Its average prime-time viewership — 21.4 million people — was less than for the mostly live coverage from Vancouver four years ago, but up 6% over the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, which were also on tape delay.

More remarkably, NBC won every night of the 2014 Olympics compared to 14 of 17 in 2010 and eight of 17 in Turin. NBC also beat the combined broadcast competition (ABC, CBS and Fox) by 45% in viewership.

Of course, prime-time broadcast doesn’t tell the whole story, as NBC has been at pains to point out. Millions more watched events at various times throughout the day on NBC Sports Network, USA Network, CNBC and MSNBC.  And then there were the additional millions who watched on computers, tablets and smartphones.

Perhaps what’s most surprising about NBC’s achievement is that with all the prime-time events seen on a tape-delayed basis, the winners could easily have been known hours before the broadcast.  There was a time within the living memory of many readers when NBC (and ABC before them) tried to keep Olympics results under wraps.  Sometimes news of very high profile contests, such as the Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding skate-off of 1994, would filter back through word of mouth, but generally viewers who sat down to watch the Games in the pre-Internet era had no idea who the winners and losers were.

But in today’s age of instant communication and social media overload, there’s no way to keep the winners secret.  Brian Williams himself announced the results during “The NBC Nightly News.” And yet people still watched the prime-time broadcast in droves.

This is not the first time that anxieties about the impact of TV-related technology have been overblown.  Remember the fear that TiVo and DVRs would demolish ad-supported TV by letting everyone fast-forward through the commercials?  Turns out DVRs lead to more viewing, and fast-forwarding is offset by the number of new viewers who actually watch the ads.  Remember how Internet streaming was going to undercut traditional television?  Turns out streaming helps build interest in TV programs, leading to record viewing levels.

It now seems clear that social media chatter about winners and losers is no threat to the Olympics.  In fact, the role of social media in general, especially Twitter, seems vastly overblown.  Only 10% to 15% of Americans even have Twitter accounts, and only a percentage of them are active at any one time, so the amount of spoiling that can take place on Twitter is pretty small.

The bigger threat from spoiling comes from traditional news organizations like The New York Times or CNN, which send out news alerts to subscribers.  For every one Olympics result I saw on Twitter, I received about 20 email notifications from the various news outlets I follow.  Yet everyone wants to talk about the impact of social media, while no one wants to discuss the impact of the boring old New York Times.

Spoilers have limited impact on Olympic viewing anyway, because the Games are not really a sporting event.  They’re produced by NBC Sports and feature physical contests with winners and losers  — but, except for hockey, don’t offer the essence of a sports broadcast.  And how do we know that?  Because the audience is predominantly female.  The Olympics has turned into the best-produced, most expensive reality show in the history of television.  With all its sob stories, heroes and villains, it almost doesn’t really matter who wins, or whether the results are known ahead of time.

The other thing that doesn’t seem to have undercut Olympic TV viewing is Internet streaming.  As NBC will be happy to tell you, the Olympics were a multiplatform effort — but I’m guessing the amount of streaming, like the amount of social media, is somewhat exaggerated.  Even the results for big-ticket events — the men’s hockey semifinal between the U.S. and Canada, which was said to have been streamed by 2.1 million viewers — were not that impressive.

Those 2.1 million streamers should not be equated to 2.1 million TV viewers as measured by Nielsen.  Nielsen produces an average audience metric (that is, the average number of people watching at any one time).  To get an equivalent Nielsen number for the game, you’d have to take the 65 million streamed minutes and divide by the length of the event (say, 90 minutes); this would produce an average audience of 722,000, which is not bad for a midday TV show, but only a fraction of the prime-time broadcast.

Another indication of the minimal impact of the digital offerings is their level of ad support.  NBC Sports sold just $50 million in digital ads for the Sochi Olympics, far below the $800 million in national TV ad sales for the Games.  And it wouldn’t surprise me if it took some creative accounting to get the total as high as $50 million.

In any event, despite all the technological advances, we still largely experience the Olympics the same way we have for generations: watching a highly curated version on the TV set.  This is good news for NBC as we head to the 2016 Summer Games in Rio.