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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