#NBCFail? Not Quite. Prime Time Olympics Coverage is Surprising Success for Network

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Jed Jacobsohn / The New York Times via Redux

Jim Bell, the seven-year executive producer of "Today," in the NBC control room in the International Broadcast Center in London. Bell orchestrates NBC's coverage of the Olympics, which has garnered big ratings for the network.

It’s more than a week into the London Olympics, and Twitter users are still hammering NBC for its tape-delayed coverage, its glitchy streaming online video, and the endless commercials in between and during the competition. But so far, the network’s coverage has been an unexpected success, ratings-wise.

NBC paid $1.2 billion for the U.S. rights to air the London Games, a crazy figure even compared to the 2008 Beijing Games, when it paid close to $900 million. But what may seem crazier is that NBC expected to lose about $200 million airing the Games this year.

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Why would NBC be willing to lose $200 million? The Olympics are a viewed as a brand-builder, for one thing: Being the sole provider of the Games to the American audience is something the Peacock Network could really fluff its feathers about. But NBC was also betting that the Olympics would, despite losing money in the short-term, pay off later by helping to promote its fall lineup. Anyone who has watched the Olympics now knows, perhaps all too well, that the Matthew Perry sitcom “Go On” will debut on Sept. 11 and that the lights go off on J.J. Abrams apocalyptic drama “Revolution” on Sept. 17.

NBC is also hoping to increase long-term ratings for existing shows like “Today,” which has been lagging behind other network morning shows. And so far, so good: “Today” beat out “Good Morning America” every day last week by featuring popular Olympic athletes and through endless promotions during the Games. NBC has also tried to use the Olympics to introduce audiences to new co-host Savannah Guthrie, who recently replaced Ann Curry. It was the show’s best week since, well, the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. So if you’ve been wondering why some commercial breaks just feel like one long promotional vehicle for NBC, that’s because to some extent they are.

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Considering the sizable loss NBC was projecting, you might think NBC officials all but assumed that tape delay and the almost-impossible-to-ignore leaks about who had won and lost would limit primetime viewership. Plus, the television audience has increasingly refused to sit obediently in front of their televisions during the evening hours, making prime-time “event” television something of a dinosaur in our increasingly fragmented and time-shifted digital era. But it turns out that NBC is not only garnering prime time ratings far higher than it got for the Beijing Games; it might actually turn a profit selling additional ad spots.

As is common practice in the industry, the network had been holding back advertising slots that would have turned into free ads if ratings had been poor. But now, thanks to higher-than-expected ratings, those slots are selling. So far, more than 30 million viewers have tuned in to the Olympics during six of the first seven nights. The Beijing Games drew 30 million viewers only five nights during the entire Olympics. According to The New York Times, the 36.8 million viewers who watched swimmer Michael Phelps and gymnast Gabby Douglas on Thursday was the most-watched show on a Thursday night since the “Friends” finale eight years ago.

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The high ratings are surprising, especially considering the flak the network has received on social media. But as Will Leitch pointed on sports writer Joe Posnanski’s blog, Twitter isn’t what you would call “representative” of the world at large.

NBC released a survey showing that viewers who knew Olympic results beforehand would still watch the Games in prime time. NBC itself commissioned the study, so there was reason to be skeptical — but now that prediction doesn’t seem far-off. “Everybody keeps talking about this old television model being a dinosaur,” says Robert J. Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. “There’s this idea that digital technologies have made that model obsolete, but it’s an incorrect assumption.”

Thompson says there’s still a good chunk of the U.S. population that isn’t online all day (it’s estimated that around 20% of the population doesn’t use the Internet) or can’t watch live streams during business hours. He also credits NBC for packaging the Games in a compelling fashion. “Give them three minutes, and it’s generally enough to hook you,” he says.

He also thinks the Olympics are fundamentally unique among sporting events. “They’re not like basketball or football games,” he says. “When you go to a production of ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ you know they’re going to be dead at the end. But you go because you want to watch the process. The story lines draw you in. Many of the sports are less familiar, and some of them – like gymnastics – are very artistic, and that is something people want to see even if they know the end result.”

While the network will likely hear criticism of its coverage through the close of the Games and beyond, the fact that they’re looking at a possible profit will give NBC’s officials a much thicker skin. NBC definitely deserves some of the flak: Its ad-smothered online coverage, for example, underwent buffering issues as Usain Bolt crossed the finish line in the 100 meter dash on Sunday, for instance. But it appears that network officials have realized that it can’t run a business by trying to satisfy everybody on the Internet all the time.

MORE: At NBC’s Olympics, the Thrill of Video Vs. the Agony of Delay

19 comments
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jamespinkerton81
jamespinkerton81

Considering the time-delay issue, I think NBC handled

Olympics scheduling very well. You can’t control the results, but you can

control the coverage and present it in a way to make it appealing for the

primetime audience. I haven’t been home for much of the primetime coverage, but

I used my Dish Remote Access App for my iPad to catch live coverage and

recorded matches on my DVR. I watched last night’s recording of the track relay

races on my commute to Dish this morning, and thought the U.S. women’s

team did a great job winning the gold! It’s sad the Olympics are coming to an

end, but it’s been a memorable two weeks!

 

Jeff Lawrence
Jeff Lawrence

NBC, aka Nazi's think the US people are peon's and can control us like mice.  Fail!

FiremedicJM
FiremedicJM

I never once tuned into NBC to see the Olympics, They didn't deserve my viewership. Instead I watched BBC through their android app as well as online. It was so simple to sign into a VPN(took me less than 5 min and no..it wasn't hard like most articles would lead you to believe)  and watch every event I wanted, Live, No commercials, , No puff pieces, No interviews No stuttering, Good commentators...Just pure events covered very well. BBC even had TV channels in Great Britain designated for Live coverage so if you live there you could sit down and watch what you wanted. They did it right and I salute them. 

osei
osei

This is like a joke.  These media folks think they can always pull the wool over the rest of everyday normal middle class American eyes, since we are suppose to be sheeps and believe everything they say.

Times Magazine cannot face the truth. No wonder in the second half of 2009 the magazine saw a 34.9% decline in news stand sales, then in the first half of 2010, there was another decline of at least one third in Time magazine sales. In the second half of 2010, Time magazine newsstand sales declined by about 12% to just over 79 thousand copies per week and has continued on it downward trend ever since.

No one is buying this crap about..... if there was no monopoly on the Olympic Games and NBC was to do what is it currently doing, it would be guaranteed that all other media house would have out done them.  When you have a monopoly on something you can throw the shti at the crowd and they just have to grovel in it.   However, he who laughs last laugh best.    Most people will move away from these losers at the end of the Olympics.

RodgerE1
RodgerE1

1. They have a monopoly on coverage.

2. It's the summer, there is NOTHING else on.

#NBCFAIL

BelleMonte
BelleMonte

So disappointed in this article. Yes we understand why NBC did what they did. It's a no brainer. Does it make it right? No. I'll never watch NBC again. #nbcfail #timefail. 

BelleMonte
BelleMonte

Yes we understand why NBC did what they did. It's a no brainer. Does it make it right? No. I'll never watch NBC again. #nbcfail #timefail. 

Dave Jefferson
Dave Jefferson

Josh you are missing the point.  Of course the ratings are higher than they were 4 years ago when the Olympics were 12 hours away in China.  We have no other choice but to watch the delayed broadcast if we want to support U.S. Olympians.  In your article you cite the importance of the games to the NBC brand and on that topic they have utterly damaged the brand beyond repair.  Compare the ratings for the Rio Olympics when 50% of the U.S. subscribes to the BBC North American Live Streaming Package!

ronballam
ronballam

Ratings success relative to what? What about lost opportunities? Broadcasting events live in addition to the primetime show might have increased overall ratings and overall ad revenue  for the network. What about exploiting other channels (pay-per-view, internet feed monetization beyond ads within live streams,...)? However, a monopolist does not need to be efficient and NBC shareholders cannot measure lost opportunities in this situation. 

And then there are other issues such as brand reputation due to #NBCfail, which all stem out of exploiting solely the entertainment side of the event while simultaneously destroying potential of the Olympics as a sports event and as the major news event. Not at all clear that unmeasurable small improvement on the entertainment side merits killing the other aspects of the potential revenue.

There are issues of public trust and questions about public right for visual news information and public interest in the event, but NBC should not care about that as long as IOC is OK with it (and consequently USOC). Americans interested in Olympics can take solace in the fact that NBC is essentially financing Olympics to be enjoyed by the whole World by limiting access to them. Kind of perverse logic, but apparently, those interested in Olympics are not valuable enough to NBC. You just have to trust NBC on that one. 

gb
gb

You can win the 100m running it in 100s if you're the only runner in the race. I watch inspite of the awful coverage because I am a fan of the Olympics and something is better than nothing. If that is a win in your mind no wonder the MSM is becoming obselete.

joInAmerica
joInAmerica

I so agree. You just hold your nose and watch anyway, doing your best to ignore the constant interruptions and the force feeding of the network's  favorite sports. And thank God they brought in Al Michaels. Not meaning to be impolite, but I could not stand that other fellow that they started out with. He must be married to the CEO's daughter. Frankly, anyone who would applaud NBC's coverage could not be watching what the rest of us are watching.

solhorizonte
solhorizonte

I expected this article from anybody but TIME magazine, what a disappointment. A success? this feels like people celebrating a kidnapping and saying NBC got the last laugh when they got the ransom money and got away with it, hurting all these REAL sports fans and America's reputation worldwide along the way, great piece of journalism to celebrate the economics but not the human side.

mtngoatjoe
mtngoatjoe

The ratings may be great, but that doesn't mean the coverage is. Many of us watch the Olympics dispite the coverage. In many ways, I love the highlight reels the NBC puts together, but I often want more depth. I often want more international reporting. I often want to jump from one sport to another when I want, not when NBC says I should. And I often want to see some things live, regardless of the time zone. I have a cheap cable package, so I'm not elegible to view NBCs online live coverage (sucks to be me!). What I want is more flexability.