#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.

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