For years, we got glimpses of a brave new world for Olympic coverage.
But there always had to be limits. The idea that viewers could pick and choose day and night and get exactly what they wanted from the vast Olympic smorgasbord was simply naive. It didn’t make sense. After all, such blasphemy would disrespect the all-powerful titan of Olympic TV: Network primetime coverage, which lorded above all else in with its huge audiences and the ad dollars that followed those viewer eyeballs.
Well, that was then. While NBC’s network primetime coverage is still clearly the lead dog in its 2016 coverage, a future has finally arrived from Rio in which viewers are no longer held hostage to outmoded TV formulas.
Imagine that. And while the details behind how this could possibly have arrived through NBC’s 2016 Olympic might sound technical, the basics are easy.
NBC has shown you can do just fine when you remember consumers really do want what they want -- and right when they want it. And, you just need to remember eyeballs are still eyeballs – and still a valuable commodity to advertisers -- whether they’re drawn to big-screen TV or smartphones.
NBC primetime coverage, although currently trending upward, is so far trailing comparable viewership for the 2012 London Olympics.But the big picture is this. “We are aggregating audiences at a scale nobody has done before,” says Mark Lazarus, Chairman of NBC Sports Group. “This will be our most economically successful Games in history, and it’s by far the most viewer-friendly TV event of all time.”
Even factoring for corporate hyperbole, he’s got an important point worth crowing about.
Consider that, for the first time, NBCU is actual offering up competition – live primetime sports on its NBCSN and Bravo channels – to its own NBC Olympic primetime coverage. For anybody who wants to just watch sports in primetime, rather than the carefully-assembled NBC coverage introducing mass audiences to unfamiliar athletes and events, that option has finally arrived.
And while NBC in past Games offered plenty of live digital streaming, the once-heretical notion has obviously sunk in with now-freed viewers. NBCU says it Wednesday passed 1 billion live total streaming minutes -- an Olympic first – and in the next few days will surpass total streaming minutes of all Olympics combined.
Alan Wurtzel, NBCU president for Research and Media Development, cites research saying about two-thirds of viewers say their Olympic experience has gotten better because of having more ways and connect to the Games. And he reports that 83% of viewers say they are more comfortable than they used to be in using technology to access Olympic action. And that’s not just just limited to youngsters who began playing with their phones in their cribs: About 75% of 50-plus viewers say the same thing.
Which is good, since consumer enthusiasm can spur even better viewing technology. Some is already here, such as NBCU parent Comcast’s new X1 box, which lets viewers easily find Olympic action whether it’s on TV or online. Through Tuesday, 77% of homes with X1 have tuned to Olympics programming (live, streaming, DVR, or VOD) at some point during the Games.
That’s a tangible glimpse of the long-awaited convergence of TV and the Internet that suggests future Olympic viewing will be even better.
To quantify its groups of Olympic primetime viewers, NBCU formally bundles them in a primetime Total Audience Delivery. Meaning, when NBC’s Tuesday night TV coverage drew 33.4 million viewers and Wednesday’s drew 26.4 million viewers – each below London 2012 levels – they each rose 8% when cable TV and online coverage were added in. Which suggests that NBC’s primetime coverage, long kept sheltered, should be able to peacefully co-exist with competition from other NBC outlets that give viewers more Olympic choices.
And let’s put NBC primetime coverage in some perspective. Despite NBCU’s round-the-clock Olympic outlets, viewership for its Bob Costas-led shows are about as good as it gets in primetime TV. Tuesday night’s NBC Rio primetime viewership, for instance, nearly equalled the audience for this year’s Academy Awards.
But quibbling with all these various numbers is a bit like asking exactly how many tanks or helicopters are in an army when are you really want to know is whether it can dominate its adversaries.
For NBCU, which has invested $12 billion in media rights fees for the Olympics through 2032, the results from Rio show that the Olympics’ five rings constitute an irresistible force.
Consider that NBC Olympic primetime is drawing viewership nearly 300% above viewership for the other broadcast networks combined. And, that the Games’ halo effect is bringing ratings boosts, which could have lasting effects, to NBC affiliates and various NBC shows outside the sports division: Viewership in the Adult 18-34 demographic for Nightly News with Lester Holt nearly doubled from last week’s levels, while TODAY beat the combined total of its morning-show competitors in the demo.
And advertisers are also enjoying a sort of halo effect: According to Nielsen’s TV Brand Effect, commercials that ran inside Games coverage had a 39% better viewer recall when they ran outside Rio coverage.
And perhaps surprisingly for an event that literally dates back to when athletes competed naked and prayed to Zeus, it’s still a powerhouse even among very trendy 21st-century creations.
The first six days of NBC’s Rio coverage, says NBC, generated 153.8 million “social media engagements” – a term researchers use to describe likes, shares, posts, hashtags and other digital preoccupations. That total was 10 times larger than the total for NCAA Basketball March Madness – held over 19 days -- and outpaced the 32-day total for the entire 2014 soccer World Cup in Brazil.
And while those social media engagements suggest that the Olympics have fallen short when it comes to the original idea that they can lead to truces in wars, they still represent a sort of ideal: The social engagements spawned by NBC’s first five days at Rio were 35 times greater than those generated over that same time span by Taylor Swift and 16 times greater than Pokemon Go.
“Our ratings consumption is meetings our expectations,” says NBC’s Lazarus. “The mix is just a little different. Cable and digital are continuing to grow at a fast rate.”
Meaning that the future of Olympic coverage, which seemed so impossibly distant in the 20th-century when Olympic cable TV coverage and Internet access were kept away from viewers, has finally arrived. Better late than never.