Beijing Games Reveal Internet's Limitations

China Olympics 2008: Television Still Delivers a Better Experience and Bigger Financial Returns

By Published on .

David Wolf
David Wolf
When the Olympics began nearly three weeks ago, I wondered whether the internet had doomed television coverage of the Olympics. Today, I have the answer. Hell, no.

Before you new-media types fire up your flamethrowers, stand down for a moment. I am one of you. I think conventional media is in trouble. I get my news online and I would rather play a computer game than watch a sitcom. When it comes to books, music and video, I worry more about having enough space on my hard drive than on my shelves.

New media has made real inroads into television audiences, not only in the United States and Europe, but also here in China, in particular with people in their teens and early twenties.

A glance at how China's online demographics have been changing over the past decade is sobering for television programmers. As the PRC's young netizens age, they are sticking to their online habits. Adios, golden demographic.

But the Beijing Olympics proved that when it comes to live events generally, sporting events in particular, and the Olympic Games specifically, the internet has a long way to go, for two reasons.

The first reason is the experience. When you want to experience a live event, obviously your first choice is to be there. But for those of us unable -- or unwilling -- to come up with the scratch to attend events in person, nothing on the internet can come close to live via television, especially on a high-definition set.

For all the virtues of online video, a two-inch streaming clip doesn't give you the same appreciation for what is happening. The sweat on the brow of a Chinese ping-pong champion before a critical serve. The lines of concentration on Shawn Johnson's face as she gets ready to charge the vault horse. The way Michael Phelps does that double-jointed kick thing with his feet. The stunning detail of Zhang Yimou's epic opening ceremony. None of that can be experienced online with the kind of power that television can deliver.

The second reason is money. As NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol told The New York Times in a discussion about the Olympics, "We cannot afford to trade analog dollars for digital dimes." Meaning, we cannot afford to trade TV dollars for internet dimes.

Not only does the internet need to come up with an immersive way to experience the games that is utterly superior to that offered by television, it needs to find a way to package that experience in a way that brings in more money than commercials.

Online media has walked a long and painful road to get to where it is today, with a few workable ways to begin earning money from content online. But Ebersol's point is a sobering reminder that preroll ads, screen scrolls and banners aren't enough. We still have a long way to go.

Until we can come up with a way to virtually put people in the venues while they sit in their living rooms, and a way to turn that into the cash to support the titanic effort required to put them there, television is going to own live events.

Broadcasters, meanwhile, need to find a way to fill the months between the Super Bowl, the Final Four, the World Series and quadrennial sport-fests like The World Cup and The Olympics.

For more Olympic blogging, click here
Most Popular