Broadcaster eyes live digital streaming to hurdle time zones

As NBCU plans to cover its first Olympics as a Comcast company, the network is aiming to use a number of platforms to wind up on the winner’s platform. It’s a gameplan that includes streaming video to augment broadcast and cable coverage, along with establishing an identity for the rebranded NBC Sports Network and integration of other Comcast cable outlets — all to ensure that its $4 billion investment in the Games through 2020 pays off.

Certainly, there won’t be a shortage of coverage at the London Games, which run July 27 through Aug. 12. NBCU provided 3,600 total hours of programming from Beijing in 2008, and the network plans to exceed that in London. Moreover, NBCU is saying publicly that it already has sold as much as $900 million in advertising — much of that to Olympic partners that need to buy media to activate their significant investments in the Games.

According to Larry Woodard, head of Graham Stanley Advertising, the network needs to book a bit more than $200 million to break even on what it paid for the rights.

But there’s more to these Games than merely turning a profit.

“The Olympics provides a tremendous opportunity to build awareness for the NBC fall lineup,” says John Miller, of NBC Sports Group. “We plan to take full advantage of that opportunity.”

By most measures, NBCU’s coverage of the 2008 Games won a gold medal for ratings. Over 16 nights, 211 million Americans watched at least some of the Beijing Games, beating the previous record of 209 million set during the Atlanta Games in 1996. And the 2010 Winter Games from Vancouver averaged 24.4 million viewers in primetime, up considerably from the 2006 event in Italy (20.2 million).

These are high bars to clear for London, especially considering that the five-hour time difference between the British capital and the East Coast, which rises to eight hours on the West Coast, will prevent events from being shown live on NBC in primetime — although they will appear live on the network’s other platforms.

“We have covered nine Olympic Games in the past 23 years,” notes Gary Zenkel, president of NBC Olympics. “Of those, only three have been in a U.S. time zone, and yet all have drawn and sustained massive audiences to our coverage, especially for our primetime coverage.”

Zenkel adds that as a Comcast company, NBCU has more outlets to reach Olympics viewers, including the nascent NBC Sports Network and 11 regional sports networks. “And we have access to technology that will provide the most complete viewing experience of any sporting event in history,” he says.

Online streaming figures to play a bigger role than ever. “Every competition will be available live on at least one NBCUniversal platform,” Zenkel says, “either television or digitally streamed.”

Before Beijing, NBC had shown only one Olympics event live online, a 2006 hockey game. In 2008, it offered 2,200 live hours of coverage online, drawing more than 72 million video streams. However, for the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, NBC cut back on live online coverage — to around 400 hours (drawing 45 million vidstreams), featuring mostly less-popular events — in the belief that most users check in online simply for highlights, features and other information, rather than to watch live events.

This year, some media observers say the network’s ability to fully intergrate online into its coverage will determine whether or not it turns a profit from the games.

“Everybody seems to be watching TV with an iPad or an iPhone or a laptop in their hands,” says Woodard. “You need to have content for people who are watching and on the Internet at the same time. That’s certainly a place for advertisers to be.”

Woodard cites a strategy used during this year’s Super Bowl that married online and television advertising. Chevrolet asked Super Bowl fans to download its app and register, giving each new user a unique license plate number. The person whose number matched the license plate in the company’s television commercial won a vehicle.

Yet online is just one component in an NBC programming strategy that’s targeting all dayparts, and will begin each day, including weekends, with the “Today” show from the Olympic Park in London, at 7 a.m. Eastern time.

The NBC Sports Network (rebranded from Versus on Jan. 2) will be a key element in the overall coverage, and is part of an effort by Comcast, which acquired a majority stake in NBC-Universal last year, to merge operations of its cable channels with NBC. Attracting enough advertisers won’t be an issue, notes Gary Carr of TargetCast. “It ultimately sells out,” he says. “They’ve got a lot of time to sell.”

But Woodard isn’t as certain of all ad inventory being sold, considering the network is packaging traditional TV spots with digital bundles, and selling them together. “With all of the inventory they will have including streaming digital … it is highly unlikely they will sell out even when they begin shortly to concentrate on selling ads in the scatter market,” he says.

Spots for the 2008 Olympics went for on average of $750,000, but it’s harder to put a pricetag on a package that includes streaming.

Moreover, ratings guarantees, or “make-goods,” which traditionally depend on things like the daypart and sport being broadcast, will be further complicated by how the value of the online component is factored in.

U.S. athletes winning events certainly wouldn’t hurt. In the 2008 Beijing Games, U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps took eight gold medals, helping NBC see a ratings surge on nights he hit the pool. Unfortunately, after Phelps was finished swimming, ratings dropped over the ensuing seven nights, and outpeformed the corresponding nights in Athens (2004) only once.

NBCU also has rights to the U.S. Olympic track and field trials in Eugene, Ore., and swimming trials in Omaha, Neb., which will be held a few weeks before the London Games begin. It has already begun a promotional push that includes spots on its on-demand services.

David Carter, director of the Sports Business Institute at the USC Marshall School of Business, says the network will begin to build up interest in particular athletes through human interest blurbs. “You’ll see a lot of promos,” he says. “They’ll try to build stories as far out as possible. It’s the human stories that always attract viewers.”

Phelps will be 27 at the London Games, and is expected to compete in fewer events this time. Other Americans who could provide NBC with storylines include swimmer Ryan Lochte, a three-time gold medalist. There also figures to be interest in track superstar Usain Bolt of Jamaica.

But the starter’s gun has yet to sound for the promo blitz.

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