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West Coast viewers find Olympic TV schedule maddening

SACRAMENTO — First we have to shun broadcast news, social media and the Internet to keep from learning who won gold, silver and bronze. Then we have to stay up to midnight and beyond to see the results.

There's a lot of bleary-eyed West Coasters this Olympics, even though the Games in Vancouver and Whistler, British Columbia, are happening in our own time zone.

The International Olympic Committee set the schedule so that much of the ice skating and snowboarding competitions are shown live after 7 or 8 p.m. in prime time for Central and East Coast audiences, which make up about 75 percent of the U.S. market. But the West Coast is getting a tape delay so the events are shown in prime time here as well.

"It really suits those with anxiety disorders who don't want the stress of not knowing who's going to win," said Miriam Smith, an associate professor of broadcast and electronic communication arts at San Francisco State University. "But for most people, it ruins the whole thing."

Television brought the world into people's living rooms. And technological developments keep making the screens bigger and the picture crisper so people can feel almost as if they're experiencing it all in person.

And NBC packages the events so audiences get a show worth the picture, so they don't have to sit through the competition of every athlete from every country, Smith said.

But the tape delay means Pacific viewers can know who won what before competitions even air. And even knowing the results, they still wait, fight sleep to see the drama play out, knowing it could all have been on three hours earlier.

"It's a very different experience," said Smith, who admitted looking on the Internet for results as the competition was going on Monday night. "I'm not watching for the drama and excitement. I'm watching for the aesthetics – to see how these gold medalists behave and the way they look."

Ratings from the first four nights of the Olympics show people are watching in prime time no matter what part of the country they live in, said NBC Sports spokesman Chris McCloskey.

An average of 27.9 million people have been watching the Games so far, more than a 25 percent increase over the 2006 Winter Games.

The biggest audience came from the Mountain time zone and was followed by the Pacific. The Sacramento market tied for the 14th top metered market with a third of viewers watching the Olympics over other TV shows, according to NBC.

"Our research shows, people in the Western time zone want to watch the Olympics when they are available to watch them, which in most cases mean when they are at home and in prime time," McCloskey said.

NBC offers live Olympic coverage on four cable channels and its Web site, he added.

Sacramento NBC affiliate Channel 3 (KCRA) believes the prime-time slot is beneficial for people and is a model that has worked for decades, even when the Olympics were held in Los Angeles, said news director Anzio Williams. An earlier broadcast wouldn't help most people, he said.

"People would still be driving home," he said. "This gives us the most number of viewers, which is why we call it prime time – it's the most valuable real estate."

But Liz Baidoo, a public relations specialist for VSP, almost had a spoiler Saturday when a friend in San Antonio texted her about speedskating results Saturday.

"I was like, 'Hold on, don't tell me! I'm not there yet,' " she recalled. "That's a little bit of a disappointment – she's two hours into it and I'm still watching 'Entertainment Tonight.' "

Baidoo, 33, wishes NBC would offer all coverage live and then she could TiVo if she had a conflict.

"I like to be surprised and have the anticipation," she said. "And if someone's going to come from behind and win, I want to be in the midst of everything."

Elaine Chan, an assistant professor at San Francisco State, said NBC seems to be limiting its audience's options, especially for people used to everything on demand.

"People generally like more flexibility," she said. "With social media and online news, none of that is waiting for the West to catch up."

In the sport of broadcast, however, winning is still about audience size.

"Television is in the business of selling audiences to advertising," said Smith. "Any small move to dilute the audience could be a ratings point; and one ratings point in the United States is over a million households."

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