NBC Universal’s Olympic Upset: Streaming Trumps TV

Brian Roberts Olympics NBC Comcast
Courtesy of Comcast

Coexistence or cannibalization?

With a second day of depressed TV ratings in from Rio, the finger-pointing has begun. Given massive 30+% declines in the 18-49 demo, what could be sapping the strength of one of the biggest draws on the calendar for U.S. audiences: the perception that there’s too many commercials? Viewing alternatives like the successful launch of “Suicide Squad??”

Or maybe digital viewing is finally starting to cannibalizing TV. What little data NBC Universal has released over the first two days makes it impossible to draw a causal link, but here’s what we do know: the 216 million minutes streamed over that period is up 280% from the same span at the London games four years ago. The 11.3 million unique users over that period is up 7%.

To blame that digital growth entirely for the linear-channel decline is preposterous. But if anyone at NBCU is drawing that conclusion anyway, they’d likely keep the observation to themselves. That’s counter to the corporate party line shared publicly by execs, which is that the depth of digital only whets “superfan” viewer appetites for more watch time on TV. Just have a gander at some of the research NBCU shared after London that suggested the more screens, the merrier:

Floating this rising-tide vision of the Olympics multiplatform world makes it seem that neither advertiser guarantees or topping the $120 million in profit Comcast pocketed four years ago will be problem. But it’s worth considering that if streaming hasn’t already siphoned a significant portion of the linear audience, it’s an inevitability.

NBCU should take that as a backhanded compliment: Its streaming platforms have been marvelous coming out of Rio. It’s remarkable how much what was once an experimental adjunct to the linear channels has evolved into something that will surely supplant the traditional TV presentation for all but the most casual viewers.

Many Comcast subscribers are already seeing what that future looks like thanks to its X1 platform, where live and on-demand are being blended in a way that most living rooms don’t see. But for the majority of Americans who live outside Comcast’s sizable footprint, the streaming options aren’t too shabby either.

Where NBCU’s digital offerings really show their maturation from previous Olympics is how seamless the streaming is. Picture quality is excellent, buffering is minimal and the pay-TV authentication process that seemed so clunky in London doesn’t feel like an obstacle.

While 4,500 hours of Olympics action on tap online sounds impressive, that tonnage is meaningless unless organized in compelling fashion. Luckily, the navigation on NBCU’s Olympics-branded dot-com and apps is an intuitive mix that either directs you to a wide variety of live options or an even deeper on-demand selection that seems to anticipate every conceivable need, from trending short-form bits to sport-specific archives.

There’s also plenty of Olympics action that plays out online away from NBCU’s owned-and-operated properties as well. Enough time on Twitter and Facebook will give you a renewed appreciation of just how much video has become a dominant presence on social media in a way that seemed unlikely as recently as the Sochi games.

But the International Olympic Committee also seems of limited digital savvy considering its overly restrictive ban on unauthorized GIFs appropriated from video of the exclusive use to NBCU. That any entity in the year 2016 doesn’t understand by now that loosening the shackles on intellectual property results in fan-generated free marketing is mildly appalling. NBCU’s own ham-handed approach to embedded videos on Twitter was evident Saturday in a feed rife with 15-second prerolls for videos often as short as 30 seconds.

Maybe the only thing more competitive than the Olympics themselves these days is the rivalry between leading social media platforms for global eyeshare. That makes the Summer Games an opportunity for one to really seize by putting its own distinctive stamp on the content experience, but that wasn’t really reflected in the early going. Snapchat and Instagram didn’t feel as if they raised their game in any interesting way, perhaps fitting coming of a week in which Instagram essentially commodified Snapchat’s snap-based storytelling.

Even more curious is the relative silence of live-streaming platforms like Facebook Live and Periscope, which weeks ago seemed poised to become a more pervasive part of the daily digital experience in the way they insinuated themselves into the headlines. Race relations and sports competition might be totally different realms, but if live streaming is truly to become more popular it’s going to have to reshape how all different kinds of media-driven events are consumed.

Social media is still where audience sentiment regarding the Olympics is a telling indicator, but there’s risk of distortion. For every user moved to tweet a negative appraisal, there may be 10 others with a more positive experience who simply don’t feel the need to go public with their thumbs-up.

The whiners also don’t care for tape-delayed content on the linear channels, which makes streaming more attractive to them. Regardless, there’s a lot of whining online about the ad load in these streams. Perhaps NBCU should invest in an ad-free subscription version for the #NBCFail crowd, who may not be content until time-travel functionality is enabled so they can watch matches that haven’t occurred yet.

The whiners often threaten VPN usage, which enables tapping into international Olympics feeds like CBC in Canada and BBC in the UK, which are hailed on social media as if they were some utopian alternative to our dystopian reality. The grass is always greener in the other country.

It’s funny how the variety of linear-TV options that seemed so impressive 10 years ago now feels burdensome because it requires you to remember multiple channel numbers. Apple TV’s UI is a great way to comb through all the authenticated channels because all it requires is swiping through images that let you know what’s playing on each channel.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t some navigational shortcomings. While the live viewing options can sometimes seemingly run deep enough to dozens at a time, too often–even after an ad is served–a “coverage has concluded” message is all that awaits, calling into question why such an option is presented as “live” in the first place.

And while that depth provides access to obscure sports most viewers may never even encounter on linear TV, from team handball to judo, these feeds are about as dynamic as a surveillance camera, lacking multiple angles and color commentary. Maybe that absence is understandable considering there’s only so much manpower available to devote to sports with tiny audiences, but NBCU could actually drive more engagement to these sports by supplementing them with pre-taped videos that explain the rules and tell stories about the players.

If properly programmed, the kind of seemingly infinite video choices just starting to get tested on X1 will become the predominant viewing format. Don’t be surprised if Rio ends up a tipping point in turning digital into the main attraction because it’s something of a snack buffet, providing light tastings of lots of options that better fits the needs of a generation with shrinking attention spans but limitless curiosity.

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  1. Alice Jiang says:

    PureVPN is working best for me to view Olympics online. I read a guide on VPNSports

  2. Doug Hogue says:

    On cable TV, the “buffering”, if that is what it is still considered, is horrific (Concord, CA). Every few seconds, the picture pixilates and then jumps head, missing chunks of the action as well as the commentary. It is totally disruptive to the presentation of the games. What’s going on? This is even “tape-delayed”. Is there no way to broadcast a decent digital signal? It’s ruining the experience.

  3. Jami says:

    I’m in CA and they don’t start airing the “evening” games on NBC until 8PM. Then it’s blah, blah Bob Costas, then “up close & personal” stories about rivals, where/how someone grew up, it’s all great information and helps you fall in love with the athletes, but an hour and a half later-I’m asleep on the couch and I havnt seen anything. I was using the Apple TV apps and did not mind no commentary. If I didn’t know the rules for judo in the olympics, I googled it. Easy. It just starts too late.

  4. Well said Andrew! For those that are not tech-savvy I can see their frustration with NBC’s liner offerings. But, once you figure it out streaming is the way to go! I’ve been able to watch everything as long as I know when to watch. In order for NBC to triumph they need to show sport as it happens, explain and drive people to their other nets/app and vice-versa.

    Think Superbowl, Think LIVE. When Michael Phelps is swimming for his 20th, 21st gold, show it. Show it in real-time. Last night, NBC had shopping with some supermodel on network TV at the exact time the mens 4×200 medal race was happening.

    Download the NBC Olympics app and click on live & upcoming.. everything is there! Yes, you get some ads, but they’re good ads.

  5. Rick says:

    It does seem like there are more commercials this time, but at least some of the NBC ratings decline is due to the fact that — for the first time — events are airing on cable channels at the same as the broadcast.

  6. DrWeb says:

    I tried watching something live on Android NBC Sports and it’s like a tiny image, with text of other live items below it. Landscape turn or trying to make full screen doesn’t work.. no way or feature to make larger for my phone. So, I won’t watch anything live on that tiny screen image they are streaming.

  7. Alex says:

    I’ve never found a Variety writer to be as out-of-touch with reality as Andrew Wallenstein just now.

    “these feeds are about as dynamic as a surveillance camera, lacking multiple angles and color commentary. Maybe that absence is understandable considering there’s only so much manpower available to devote to sports with tiny audiences, but NBCU could actually drive more engagement to these sports by supplementing them with pre-taped videos that explain the rules and tell stories about the players.”

    Did it ever occur to you that many people don’t want color commentary and view the stories about the players and bits about rules as pointless padding TV networks add in to stretch out an event so they can cram in an extra 3-4 ads per piece? Viewers aren’t stupid; they know when they’re being fed filler to give the network an excuse for more ads. This is exactly why people flock to VPNs to get the BBC coverage: it’s direct, it’s full (as opposed to one of 4 matches with none of the other 4 besides the one chosen for broadcast as an option for viewing), and it isn’t diluted with a bunch of talking heads giving their “expert” opinions to fill up time. NBC hasn’t learned this lesson in the last 12 years.

    They deserve to lose their viewers to web-savvy outlets like BBC who give their viewers the opportunity to watch everything.

  8. james says:

    I have X1 from Comcast, it is a slow buggy POS! Comcast just needs to give up and become a dumb pipe ISP.
    Combined with NBC’s endless ramblings, the Olympics are not watchable.

  9. Anna says:

    After the opening ceremony I lost interest, too many commercials, and it’s not all about the USA there are other stories from other countries, no objectivity in this coverage
    Nothing is interesting to watch.

  10. Ella Fino says:

    To be fair the first few days are not exactly thrilling. Outside of some swimming events most everything else is preliminaries.

  11. Synesis says:

    What website is the author using? The NBC sports Olympic site is a mess. Just try to find an event not a part of NBC’s darling sports package like cycling or rugby. No problems finding dozens of links to women’s beach volleyball, but just try to get a replay of men’s or women’s road cycling. Of you try “other sports,” they loop you right back to beach volleyball links.

  12. Chris Hann says:

    As a Brit now living in the US I have always been horrified at the desperately poor Olympic ‘coverage’. Nothing but adverts, fluff pieces about what a desperately hard time Americans have had training, and the first and last few seconds of Americans in whatever events Americans had a chance in. Even when the BBC only had one channel they did a hell of a lot better, and their commentary team knew their stuff. So this year I have delighted in not watching any NBC because we recently ditched cable, part of the reason was that I did not want to be disappointed by NBC for a fifth consecutive Olympic games.

  13. Ruth Deutsch says:

    Your headline got me confused for a moment. You used the word “Trumps” and for a moment I thought Donald Trump was having an effect on the Olympics??? In other news, I think once more people learn about VPNs, that’s going to be the next big thing…

  14. Jim says:

    I haven’t watched any of it, and have no plans of watching it at all!!!

  15. Pete C says:

    The fact the author refers to the “perception” that there are too many commercials during NBC’s coverage, and calls people who complain “whiners,” is an indication of just how out of touch network execs and their minions are with what viewers actually experience. The opening ceremonies on NBC were a joke. The event was so cut up with commercials that all continuity was lost: every few minutes, it seemed, we left Rio to be sold endless junk, and on returning, the scene on the stadium had drastically changed, with no sense of how we had gotten there. Network execs, do yourselves a favor and take down the framed portraits of Gordon Gecko from your office walls. Unlike what you may believe, greed is NOT good. Until you understand that, you’re going to continue paying the price.

  16. News nomad says:

    Oh my. All those darn “whiners”surely should be sent out to the digital pasture. Better to return to the days when editors and tv execs ruled the tv world.

  17. meshmote says:

    I wanted to watch the olympics. I went to my Roku and looked for an NBC app. I found one. Then I found there was nowhere I could actually use it unless I had a cable account. I do not have a cable account. I will never have one again. I decided I didn’t want to watch the olympics as much as I thought. Good job NBC.

    • tvtay says:

      Get a VPN and livestream it on a network in another country. Best way to go for those of us without cable (and for those of us who do since NBC’s coverage is pitifully bad).

    • Been says:

      Get an antenna and watch for free over the air. You don’t get free access to their streaming just because you want it. Things cost money.

      • meshmote says:

        You are mistakenly making the assumption that free is the only way I would watch. The thread is about the shifting way we watch television, and NBCs coverage perhaps seeing the beginning of market loss when you don’t make things available the way people are watching in certain segments, especially if those segments are growing. I pay for internet access, I pay for Netflix, I pay for HBO GO, I pay for Showtime on Roku. That’s my cord-cutting menu. I would have paid for NBC Olympics coverage in the same way. NBC decided not to make that available and lost an opportunity to make more on their 1.5 bil investment than they might have otherwise. I bet the next company that buys rights in the 2018 games will be thinking this one over.

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