But can Comcast make its Olympic streaming plans pay off?
Every two years, regardless of what else might be happening at NBC, the company has been able to deliver a hopeful message about the underlying strength of its business, resting on the pedestal of five interlocking rings.Thanks to the Olympics, NBC U’s former chief, Jeff Zucker, could proudly state in 2008 and again in 2010 that its broadcast television obituaries were premature, and whatever challenges the business might face, in terms of its unparalleled ability to attract a mass audience, “The pipes still work.” Zucker is no longer responsible for NBC’s plumbing problems, but listening to his successors, they appear to have traded in the simplicity of his message for something more nuanced and complex, along the lines of “the multiplatform, have-it-your-way delivery system works — provided, naturally, we can properly monetize it.” Since acquiring a controlling stake in NBCUniversal in 2011, Comcast management has said most of the right things about its new assets: Preaching patience where it’s necessary; professing a willingness to invest in content; and advocating a two-plus-two-equals-five leveraging of its holdings, even coining a cutesy name, Symphony, to denote it. Increasingly, though, their faith in the old pipes has at times given way to a preoccupation with gadgetry geared toward all the new tubes at our disposal. And while it’s appropriate — even mandatory — for media companies to be forward-thinking about the business, it’s also easy to let the glow of what might still be pie-in-the-sky offshoots take one’s eye off the ball. NBC intends to live-stream a whopping 3,500 hours of coverage on its website, NBCOlympics.com, during the Games, making every minute available in real time. NBC Sports Group chairman Mark Lazarus told the Los Angeles Times the avid fan “has that need of immediacy.” Perhaps, but one has to wonder what percentage of fans are so avid as to feel such a need, and to what extent the network’s principal coverage could be compromised by committing to serve them such a bountiful buffet, simply because the technology has matured to the point where that’s possible. If that calculus sounds like an academic exercise, it’s worth noting that Comcast’s strategic vision for wedding its distribution apparatus and smaller programming business to NBCU has experienced recent setbacks, reminding just how fragile and unpredictable content can be. Simply put, all the synergistic cross-promotion in the world won’t help a moribund comedy block or movies like Universal’s “Battleship” make a box office splash, and even NBC News’ once-invincible “Today” show has seen its dominance erode — triggering what might have been a precipitous hosting change. By contrast, the one thing that’s clearly worked for NBC in the past year has been decidedly old-school — televising the Super Bowl — which gave its reality competition “The Voice” a turbo-boost into its second season, and to a lesser degree helped launch (temporarily, anyway) the musical drama “Smash.” Not surprisingly, NBC will seek similar advantage from the infusion of viewers associated with the Olympics — even previewing a couple of fall comedies during the showcase — although historically, the crowds assembling to watch the Games have a way of dispersing just as quickly. Beyond hedging its bets against the uncertainties of its core distribution, Comcast — like every other big-media content provider — ultimately needs to find creative ways to exploit NBC to make its acquisition pay off. Yet as the past few months have sometimes painfully demonstrated, it’s easy to put the cart ahead of the horse — or in this case, become enamored with the concept of airing thousands of hours of Olympics coverage online, when the flagship network desperately needs to capitalize on the 270-plus hours NBC will air over 17 days. Assuming past performance is any guide, NBC will do fine during the London Games, with such marquee events having generally weathered the major-network ratings erosion Zucker previously acknowledged as being “pronounced” in the interval between Summer Olympics. As soon as the torch is lit, though, the clock starts ticking, and all those thousands of streaming hours will be an afterthought unless NBC finds a way to keep some semblance of a spark going. Otherwise, cashing in on Olympic glory will be just another pipe dream.