TURIN, ITALY — Turin, Italy-- --Used to be we'd gather around the water cooler the next day and talk about what happened last night.
"Did you see Bode bomb?!"
"Kwan couldn't land a triple if you spotted her two spins and the landing!"
"Gretzky says Canada will cover, so why would I bet against them?"
Not anymore. These Turin Games mark a whole new chapter for the Olympics. The way we consume the Olympics has been revolutionized.
I don't buy the talk that the sky is falling on the sacred Games. Sure, Americans don't understand all of the sports, attendance is sparse and television ratings are down. That is apparently reason enough for the fantasy-football crowd to declare the Olympics obsolete. But the truth is the Games are very relevant -- you just have to realize that we've ridden the monorail into a techno age.
You can look back on Sydney in 2000, Salt Lake City in 2002 or Athens in 2004, and you won't see a single Olympics affected by the Internet like these Turin Games. Go ahead and blame new media for sagging ratings, but it also illustrates that people are still interested in what's happening up on the slopes and down on the ice.
This week, NBC puffed out its chest. The network is boasting about winning four straight nights of the prime-time ratings war for the first time since August 2004. We can attribute that to the weak lineup NBC normally presents, not Olympic intrigue.
Actually, the ratings are down more than 33 percent from the Salt Lake City Games in 2002 and nearly 20 percent from the Nagano Games in 1998. Last week's opening ceremony brought in half the viewers from four years ago.
In the past few days, the Olympics has lost out to CSI and Grey's Anatomy. More viewers were interested in American Idol than the alpine idol, and many of you nixed desperate figure skaters for Desperate Housewives.
And here in Turin, many venues have been only half full. Olympic organizers are actually filling the stands with schoolchildren, charging them only $3.50 for admission.
But none of this is to suggest that people are ignoring the Games. They're just receiving and digesting the information in a whole new way.
On Monday, 21 million people tuned into NBC's coverage of the Games. That same day, NBCOlympics.com registered 29 million page views. The Internet is changing everything.
"[Young people] don't want to be engaged for hours on end," says Larry Weber, CEO for W2 Group, an Internet marketing services company. "They just want to check it out when they can. They inform themselves. They don't wait for someone to inform them."
Weber notes that before many viewers watch the Games each night, they've already read about the results online.
"We can't wait until 8 o'clock," he says. "Part of the problem television has is that it's not live. We've quickly become a society of immediate gratification. If someone has heard about a big wipeout on the mountain, they want to see video of it right now. There's no waiting."
While TV ratings slip, Internet numbers boom. Early numbers are more than twice what they were in Athens and nearly 10 times higher than Salt Lake City.
At the Athens Games in 2004, NBC seemed hesitant to invest too much in its digital offering. After all, it spent hundreds of millions of dollars for broadcast rights.
Earlier this week, Gary Zenkel, president of NBC Olympics, said that "nothing replaces the shared experience of watching the Olympics on television."
I guess that might be true for the 1 percent of American people who are still scared of computers. It's a safe bet that NBC's sponsorship dollars are mostly tied to TV, but more and more, actual consumers are following the Games online.
No matter how many commercials we see, the Olympics aren't designed for the mainstream. They're sports Americans can't relate to and athletes we've never heard of. That makes the Games perfect for the Internet audience. The Web is where we go for our niche interests -- things like the Danish stock market, single women who love goldfish and Doritos and the latest biathlon results.
Study after study suggests that the prime demographic, 18- to 34-year-olds -- especially men -- spend more time online than any other group. Doesn't it make sense that they'd move from their spreadsheet window to their Internet browser and check out Olympic results during the course of their workday? Or they might have watched some streaming video on their cell phone? Or listened to Bob Costas' daily podcast through iTunes?
So why in Kwan's name would they tune into even three minutes of NBC's 418 scheduled hours of Olympic coverage when they already know that Norway stomped the Americans eight hours earlier?