Games are clicking online

There’s love online for the live Olympics after all.

That was the message from NBC-Universal execs Thursday who marked the sixth day of the Summer Games with the release of a trove of statistics suggesting digital platforms and social media are opening up a viable new content experience outside television’s tape-delayed offerings.

The pro-live message ran counter to an outcry that has emanated from Twitter since the Olympics began last Friday suggesting NBCU was out of line for sticking to tape delays on TV when so many fans would already know the results being reported elsewhere in real time.

But NBCU Sports Group chairman Mark Lazarus dismissed the criticism as a “loud minority” out of step with how most consumers were watching the Olympics.

“The overwhelming majority of people are voting with their clickers and their mouses and their fingertips on every device,” he said in a conference call with reporters.

Not only is there evidence of strong sampling for live streaming via NBCOlympics.com and branded apps, but NBCU research president Alan Wurtzel suggested it was driving viewership back to TV.

A joint NBCU-Google research initiative noted that viewers who watched live streaming on the first full day of the Olympics were nearly twice as likely to watch primetime coverage on TV, and spent about 50% more time viewing than those who only watched Olympics on TV.

Even the live flow of information out of social media that some have suggested spoils tape-delayed Olympics may in fact enhance the event. An NBCU-commissioned survey found that 67% who knew the results to Olympics competition were more likely to watch. A whopping 82% using social media credited social media “buzz” for increasing their interest in the Olympics.

NBCU also conducted an impromptu experiment Thursday by allowing the live stream of a heavily hyped 200-meter individual medley race between U.S. Olympic stars Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte to be viewed not just by those with pay TV subscriptions. The unannounced stunt could give the company a glimpse of how social media, where word of the free exhibition filtered out just minutes before the match-up, can drive viewership on digital platforms.

The new data was presented as a validation of a multi-platform content extravaganza NBCU has positioned as a grand experiment capable of not only reflecting new viewing behavior but shaping them for the future. To wit, 76% of users who streamed live via a tablet did so for the time, as did 86% of those on smartphones.

The growth of the live digital Olympics doesn’t seem to be coming at the expense of the TV component, which earns the bulk of revenues. Citing success across all dayparts and channels, Lazarus revised early estimates that NBCU would lose $200 million given the $1.2 billion pricetag on the London Games to near break-even.

“We sold a lot more advertising than planned,” he said. “And there’s a small chance we could make a little bit of money.”

All in all, nearly half of the 64 million total video streams served to date were live, representing a 343% increase over the Beijing Games in 2010. NBCOlympics.com offers live views of any sport currently being played, in addition to some archived content.

Top stream to date was the Aug. 31 presentation of the women’s gymnastics final, which garnered 1.5 million streams.

Primetime ratings, meanwhile, continue to pace ahead of Beijing four years ago. Through Wednesday, NBC was averaging 34.8 million viewers (vs. 30.8 million in 2008) — the most of any non-U.S. Olympics since Montreal in 1976.

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