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Bernstein: Twitter Challenges Putin, NBC

By Dan Bernstein- Senior Columnist

(CBS) -- There's no hiding anything in Sochi. NBC knows it, and Russia will have to live with it.

The 2012 London Summer Games were tabbed the "Twitter Olympics" even before they began, understanding the number of participating athletes using the social media service to communicate with the public and market their affiliated brands, and the real-time reporting of events occurring six hours ahead of U.S. central time.

Twitter that summer had approximately 150 million users.

That number is now around 250 million, and the outcomes of events are now 10 hours ahead. That's an identical 66.6 percent increase in both, making the 2014 winter Olympics exactly two-thirds more worthy of that title than the last go-round.

Already the narratives are being drawn virally, our timelines filling with pictures of unfinished construction, stray dogs soon to face the roving governmental death squads, bathroom facilities as intimate as two-man luge and housing arrangements for NHL stars that look like cabin Junior 3 at Camp Wanahakee. One photo of poisonous, jaundiced tap water has made the Tribune's Stacy St. Clair the unlikely first "it" girl of the proceedings.

Russian President Vladimir Putin – shirtless gay icon – desperately wants this effort to showcase the Motherland in all its glory. His purported "Ring of Steel" security plan will keep out any troublesome Caucasian-Emirate separatists or Dagestani insurgents, and any problems caused by the resort town's balmy weather will be somehow counteracted by brute force.

Beyond the very real dangers posed by the region's instability, Putin faces the prospect of embarrassment by a thousand cuts. Every small failure of infrastructure, planning or logistics is documented visually and immediately, by someone we follow because we feel we know and like them, at least in the way of Twitter's pretend closeness. Bloated, grand spectacle produced for prime-time television is no match for the steady flow of graphic peeks behind the curtain.

Actual competition can't start soon enough for him, as it will quickly shift the stories to the athletes and away from broken doorknobs and repressive, repulsive social policy. Then, it becomes NBC's problem.

London 2012 was a reckoning of sorts for time-shifted television coverage, the first real capitulation to reality. NBC made everything available via live streaming, dropping the long-ridiculed pretense that it could embargo outcomes for repackaged broadcast after dinner was done and the family was together on the couch. It worked to some extent, vindicated by spectacular ratings even for games and races with winners already known.

Still #NBCfail was a trend, due to poor video quality and seemingly random interruptions in service. What sounded like an ideal solution in theory was actually quite messy in practice, creating unforeseen headaches for users promised new convenience. We'll see whether streamlined, evolved technology now eases the problems or simply adds another level of complication.

Back to the numbers: four hours more difference, and 100 million more people connected via Twitter and getting results as they happen. The difficulty becomes that much greater when trying to retain or replicate drama. The nightly broadcasts aren't so much simple, tape-delayed replays as they are instant documentaries – requiring new layers that merit full attention even when no outcome is in doubt. NBC won't just need producers and directors, it will need writers.

There is palpable volatility coming from Sochi, sensed via bursts of characters and digital-quality photos flowing by in the powerful new river of information, and the familiar comfort of the nightly Olympic broadcast contrasts starkly with unfiltered, unstoppable individual expression.

Beyond a superficial nickname like "Twitter Olympics," Sochi feels like a larger, more obvious standoff between the times, unsteady on shifting ground.

Old-guard behemoths like Vladimir Putin, the International Olympic Committee and NBC are ready to flex their respective muscles on the world stage, bent on exercising control they may not really have.

Follow Dan on Twitter @dan_bernstein and read more of his columns here.

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