As NBCUniversal prepares for its 18-day onslaught of Winter Olympics coverage starting Thursday, it’ll be rolling out a revised Olympics game plan that brings it up to speed with the fast-changing media world.
Some aspects of the Sochi Games will be familiar to American viewers: Bob Costas will be back, figure skating will be big, and the U.S. hockey team will be an underdog against Canada and Russia. But after an uneasy flirtation with multiplatform coverage and the Web in past Olympics, the Peacock has finally committed to a more-is-more strategy.
The Peacock didn’t take full advantage of cable networks in the past and was late to embrace streaming video, social media and the rise of YouTube and its ilk as destinations for must-see video highlights. For Sochi, however, NBCU is rolling out new platforms, new programs and new talent across its apps, the Web and its family of cable nets.
The biggest shift is the sheer amount of coverage that will be available. Besides the familiar primetime shows with Costas, NBC will offer streaming coverage of every event, and cable coverage will be expanded as well.
“The coverage in primetime is a movie they put on every night,” says Rick Cordella, senior VP and general manager, digital media, NBC Sports Group. “It’s carefully choreographed, with great profiles, and Bob Costas hosting. It’s an event you want to see at that moment. Whereas what I think we’re offering (on streaming) is a supplement for that.”
Jim Bell, exec producer for NBC’s Sochi coverage, admits he was nervous that primetime ratings would take a hit once NBC decided to stream every second of competition live at the 2012 London Summer Games.
“We took a big chance,” Bell says. “But as it turned out, the research folks were 100% right. Not only did it not hurt our primetime rating, but by streaming all that content and putting more hours live on the cable networks, those people came to watch in bigger numbers and for longer hours in primetime than anybody else.”
NBC offered only short VOD clips of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, all for desktop screens. “The iPad came out in March of 2010, a month after the Vancouver Olympics, so this will be the first time we stream to mobile devices,” Cordella says. However, the network draws the line at the Opening Ceremonies, which will not be streamed.
In London, NBC couldn’t exploit viral videos and missed out when Olympic moments became must-see YouTube clips. So for Sochi, nbcolympics.com will highlight such can’t-miss moments.
Having absorbed the lesson that streaming coverage builds viewer engagement, NBC is experimenting with one of its crown jewels, figure skating coverage, by airing the entire figure skating competition live on the NBC Sports Network (which didn’t even exist by that name during the last Winter Olympics).
With that many hours of coverage a day, plus a later show during primetime in the U.S., NBC was forced to use two sets of announcers for figure skating: Terry Gannon, Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski for live cable coverage; Tom Hammond, Scott Hamilton and Sandra Bezic in primetime.
“For the cable team, it just becomes too long a day,” says Bell. “To have them there prepping, doing it live, sticking around for the edit… I’m not sure there are enough lozenges for that.”
In the age of Smart TV and Airplay, though, streaming has to work on screens big and small. “The quality of the stream will go up to 5.5mbps for certain special events, which is beyond the HD you have on your TV set,” says Cordella. There will also be coverage of the Olympics on Facebook, an evolution for social media that wasn’t on anyone’s radar four years ago.
Olympic coverage will also be available on two apps, including the NBC Sports Live app, which will get a rebranding with the Olympic rings during the games.
New platforms demand new content, and NBC has heard that call. A major new streaming program for Sochi is the Olympic “Gold Zone,” whiparound coverage modeled on the NFL Red Zone Channel. NBC went so far as to hire DirecTV’s Red Zone host, Andrew Siciliano, to anchor Gold Zone. Gold Zone will stream from around 7 a.m. Eastern time to the end of the day in Sochi, around 3 p.m. ET. That streaming coverage will be available as an “encore” on VOD after the live stream ends. “
“So if you didn’t wake up for Mikaela Shiffrin winning the gold medal in skiing, you’ll have a second bite of the apple, so to speak,” says Cordella.
There will also be a daily three-minute figure skating show, “Olympic Ice,” hosted by former champ Sarah Hughes from NBC Sports Group’s studios in Stamford, Conn. Viewers will also be able to ask Hughes questions via Facebook during primetime coverage.
NBC isn’t doing all this as a public service. It paid $775 million for the rights to the Olympics, and it hopes to recoup some of those costs by selling commercials in the over-the-top coverage.
Cordella says that ad impressions online are growing more popular with advertisers.
“In Beijing it was much harder to sell digital ads. People didn’t fully grasp what it was they were buying,” he says. “When you went ahead to London, we probably had more advertisers than we had impressions to sell… I think this will only get bigger as time goes along. We’re pretty optimistic about Rio.”
The familiar primetime coverage from the International Broadcast Center is evolving, too. With controversy swirling about anti-gay policies in Russia and fears about security at the games, NBC has tapped Russian broadcaster Vladimir Posner, who has a talkshow in Moscow, to join the conversation.
“Russia is such a land of mystery,” says Bell. “It’s the biggest country on Earth, and here we are at the dawn of the 21st century. Putin is obviously an important figure on the world stage right now, and there’s a lot of other dynamics in play, so it seemed like having that voice would come in handy.”
The Winter Games also present a challenge the Summer Games do not: the possibility of long weather delays. For that, NBC has banked several documentaries, including a nearly 90-minute doc on the 20th anniversary of the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding figure skating scandal. “We’ve done (documentaries) before,” says Bell, “but not to this extent.”