You won’t find Alan Wurtzel skiing, skating or sliding down an ice-covered ditch in a luge, but NBCUniversal’s self-professed research geek, who analyzes ratings and audience data for the company, is gearing up for an event of literally Olympic proportions — sifting through reams of information that looks at how viewers watch the Games on TV, mobile tablets and even while sitting at their office cubicle. In some cases, Wurtzel sends personnel into viewer homes to record exactly how they watch the Olympics and what devices they use.
Approximately a dozen staffers take part in the effort, which Wurtzel, president of research and media development at NBCU, has been running since the company’s 2008 coverage of the Beijing Games. He says his studies of Olympics viewing behavior have helped NBCU determine early on, for instance, that consumers would rather launch apps than try to interact with a traditional Web page on a smartphone to access information.
“We are going to try to get a sense of how many people are adopting new behaviors and keeping them,” said Wurtzel, who added that such insight is indispensable in helping management figure out how to best distribute information.
Starting Feb. 6, millions of sports fans will tune in — or tap in — to events such as team figure skating and men’s and women’s snowboard slopestyle. NBCUniversal is set to broadcast a whopping 1,539 hours of coverage from Sochi round-the-clock over the 18 days of the Olympics, much of it over digital platforms. More than 1,000 hours will be transmitted via streaming video to verified subscribers to cable, satellite or telco services. That leaves more than 500 hours for TV — far more than the 436 hours NBCU devoted to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
“The biggest thing this company ever does is the Olympics,” said Steve Burke, NBCUniversal’s chief executive, during a recent meeting with reporters. “It is impossible to overstate how much it means to NBCUniversal and Comcast.”
It’s no secret that televising the event represents a big investment for Comcast, which took over NBCUniversal in early 2011 and quickly agreed to pony up $4.3 billion to keep the Games with NBCU through 2020. Rights fees for major sporting events are substantial, and securing ad support when marketers have so many media choices is no longer as sure a thing as it may have been in decades past. Still, execs expect the Sochi telecasts to be profitable, said Ted Harbert, chairman of NBC Broadcasting.
Despite the cost, in a fragmented TV-watching universe where few events can deliver huge audiences on the scale broadcasters experienced when just three TV networks dominated the landscape, the Olympics are a must-have, Harbert said. “At every broadcast network, you have to be in the big-event business,” he noted. Such programming delivers opportunities marketers can’t get yet from newer forms of ad-supported media.
The company’s ad sales staff has spent months wooing sponsors. “There is more demand out there than we could accommodate,” said Linda Yaccarino, president of NBCU’s ad sales, noting the company has sold “significantly more than $800 million” in ads. Yaccarino won’t say the event is sold out, but she acknowledges the company is measuring the scatter market — those sales coming from sponsors who purchase ad inventory just before an event is scheduled to air — for spots during the Games.
Ultimately, money isn’t NBCU’s only concern. With the kind of big-event ratings the Olympics routinely earn, the Games’ promotional value needs to be maximized. NBCU executives determined which front-burner projects have the “greatest financial benefit to the company,” said John Miller, a veteran NBC marketing executive who oversees NBCU’s company-wide promotion efforts. Latenight shows are viewed as a top priority, along with the second half of NBC’s season and “Today.” Depending on availability of promo time, Miller may try to add to the list of NBCU wares to spotlight: a Universal film, perhaps, a DVD or one of the company’s cable networks.
That means viewers can expect Olympics telecasts to focus attention on the debut of Jimmy Fallon on NBC’s 11:35 p.m. “Tonight Show” and Seth Meyers on its 12:35 a.m. “Late Night.” Also on the promo runway will be a bevy of new NBC series like Dick Wolf policer “Chicago P.D.” (which bowed this month) and the upcoming Alfonso Cuaron-J.J. Abrams sci-fier “Believe” and political thriller “Crisis” starring Gillian Anderson. And the network will aim to rouse viewer support for the venerable “Today,” which is trying to gain early ayem ground on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
The question will be whether executives will be able to demonstrate the same balance and poise that the athletes whose exploits the company is televising do. The temptation to bombard what is a relatively captive audience with promotions is high. Take the decision made during 2012’s Summer Olympics from London to cut away from closing ceremonies to show a full episode of the soon-to-debut sitcom “Animal Practice.” Viewers were not amused.
That decision was made in the heat of the moment, said Jim Bell, exec producer of NBC’s Olympics efforts. This go-round, things will be different: NBC will preview comedies “About a Boy” and “Growing Up Fisher” after the close of Olympics coverage on Feb. 21 and Feb. 23.
Additionally, NBCU’s ad sales staff is using the Games as a hook to cajole sponsors to buy more promotional time across the company’s various media outlets; NBCU stations, for instance, are hoping they can use Olympics programming in daytime and primetime to lure bigger audiences to their local news broadcasts.
Any way you look at it, with an event this size, which happens only once every two years, whatever winds up being promo’ed had better stick the landing.