In its 24/7 airing of the Beijing Olympics, NBC has been both lucky and good.
Assessing the stellar ratings for the Summer Olympics, NBC Universal prexy Jeff Zucker enthusiastically proclaimed, “This event shows the pipes work.”
In truth, the Olympics — like the Super Bowl — should be pretty hard to screw up. And the human-interest factor, starting out with Michael Phelps, is a big boon.
But there was more than luck involved. To its credit, the network admirably negotiated with the Chinese to ensure that key events were scheduled to air live during primetime in the U.S. The ambitious 24/7 multiplatforming of the action — sharing the wealth across NBC’s broadcast, cable and digital platforms — enhanced the primary network coverage as opposed to diluting it.
NBC used the opportunity to target women, tout its new fall shows at every commercial break, and even work at that old concept of synergy by airing ads touting both the network’s coverage and the new China-set “Mummy” film from sister studio Universal. NBC’s “Today” show was a long infomercial for the Games, and local NBC affils plugged the show relentlessly.
Back to good fortune: Well, when somebody breaks a victory record that has stood for 36 years, as swimmer Phelps did, that’s almost inevitably going to stir the public’s imagination. Ditto for Dara Torres, the 41-year-old swimming phenom and silver medalist. And given that gymnastics remain the foremost draw, it helps immeasurably when the U.S. contingent puts up a gilded performance, so toss a few bouquets to Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson — all 189 pounds of them, combined — for helping put NBC on their landing-sticking shoulders.
The real formula to unlocking the value of the Olympics, however, was created when Johnson and Liukin were toddlers. Years ago, programmers realized that this is “the anti-sports sport,” as Deutsch ad agency chief media officer Peter Gardiner told the New York Times — one that, unlike any of the major traditional sports, is capable of attracting women in greater numbers than men.
Television cracked this Olympic code by accentuating those events that uniquely appeal to women — gymnastics and diving during the Summer Games and ice skating (with a major assist from the 1994 Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding brouhaha) during the winter. Because of gymnastics’ inordinate female appeal, NBC did all it could to front-load its coverage — recognizing that track and field, which dominated the second week of competition, skews much more toward men.
The variety of sports competition during the Olympics has also allowed the networks to become increasingly savvy about targeting demographic segments. That’s the reason the beach volleyball duo Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh seemingly commanded more attention from NBC than the U.S.’ star-studded men’s basketball team, while the ascent of new extreme winter snow sports such as moguls and aerials represents an effort to tap into a younger audience. (NBC’s attention to women’s beach volleyball paid off when May-Treanor and Walsh claimed the gold Thursday.)
This ability to cherry-pick from a wide menu of options — and build “stories,” much the way a reality TV show does — has been central to how NBC produces the Games, at times even turning those dreaded time-zone delays into an asset. Sports purists gripe, but knowing the outcome in advance is an asset in shaping the drama, the same way producers craft episodes of “Survivor.”
NBC and the other major networks have every reason to bask in the Olympiad’s reflected glory, but those dazzling scores from the Nielsen judges merely underscore how the Games now defy gravity, as the Super Bowl has. And while the network pipes can still occasionally yield a gusher for such a distinct, biennial event, they’re only as good as what you run through them — one reason the gap separating broadcasters and cable continues to narrow.
Beyond a few marquee events, then, TV’s degree of difficulty just keeps getting higher. In that context, the Olympics represent a happy anomaly, but conjuring up the good ol’ days with any regularity remains a pipe dream.