How Rio Ratings Surprised NBC and Will Impact Future Olympics

How Olympics Ratings Surprised NBC and
Brett Costello/Newspix/REX/Shutterstock

Heading into the Summer Olympics, NBCUniversal executives were bullish on ratings for Rio de Janeiro. With a host city just one hour ahead of the Eastern Time Zone and a mountain of data pointing toward heightened interest in the games, NBCU projected that Rio would outpace the 2012 London Games in viewership.

It did not. Instead of a bulletproof success story, Rio delivered a complex portrait of the rapid changes affecting the TV business and of a viewership still hungry for Olympics coverage, but also for new ways to consume it.

Over 15 days of competition, NBCU’s Olympics coverage averaged 27.5 million viewers across all platforms, including digital streaming — down 9% from 2012. But traditional TV ratings told a far grimmer story, one that began with Nielsen numbers that showed viewership for the Aug. 5 Opening Ceremony decline 28% from London.

“I woke up that first Saturday morning alarmed with the Opening Ceremony numbers,” NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus said. “But I had a belief that the competition, which is really the centerpiece of the games, would help us, and it did very quickly.”

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Gold-medal performances from Simone Biles, Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky helped lift ratings in the first week of competition. But the numbers continued to fall short of London levels and NBCU projections. The company had to provide additional inventory to advertisers toward the end of the games to make up for a shortfall in eyeballs. NBCU had, according to Lazarus, expected linear ratings to be “10 or 15 percent higher” than they were.

But there was upside in Rio.

“The growth of streaming, the rapidity of its growth, was a little bit surprising,” Lazarus said. “We knew it would grow. We planned on it growing. Between that and the number of people watching on connected TV devices, we have a lot to learn about consumer behavior.”

Ten percent of NBCU’s ad revenue for Rio came from digital. The company expects that portion to climb in future Olympics alongside digital viewership, which grew far more from London than the company expected. Rio was the third Olympics in which NBCU provided authenticated live streaming of all events. Viewers streamed more than 2.71 billion minutes of coverage from Rio, nearly double the combined number for the two previous Olympics.

And while NBC drew the now traditional gripes about particular broadcast production decisions, digital offerings — including the experience on X1, the tricked-out cable box and platform that NBCU parent Comcast scrambled to proliferate ahead of the games — earned strong reviews.

In 2014, NBCU paid $7.75 billion to lock up Olympics rights through 2032. It did so knowing that it had no way to predict what television viewing would look like by the contract’s end. But the pace of change has outstripped NBCU’s expectations. As it prepares for the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang and the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo, NBCU needs to preserve the perception that the Olympics represent a singular opportunity for advertisers to transcend media fragmentation and reach the sort of massive audiences that television used to deliver nightly.

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In September, NBCU researchers will present to company executives and the press a deep dive on data from Rio, revealing data that will inform how Olympics in PyeongChang, Tokyo and beyond are covered. Lazarus argues that the primetime Olympics broadcast is still “the biggest game in town” and will be for the foreseeable future. (NBC’s primetime viewership in the first 15 days of Rio exceeded ABC, CBS and Fox combined by 249%.) But already he and others inside NBCU are emphasizing the importance of platforms other than the traditional, Bob Costas-hosted primetime telecast on NBC.

“We produced these games for 2016, and the coverage needs to be filtered through that pretty basic prism,” said Olympics executive producer Jim Bell. That means taking into account across-the-board declines in linear television ratings and increases in digital viewing. Those trends have forced broadcasters in recent years to diversify their business models — focusing more on retaining stacking rights for original programming, providing easier access to live streaming, and even launching standalone subscription streaming services such as CBS All Access and NBCU’s SeeSo that offer exclusive original programming.

“The equation of a certain linear TV rating for a certain time of day is a little outdated,” Bell said. “If we hadn’t been on 11 linear channels and had massive digital distribution and had social engagement across the board and an app, people would be writing about that, saying we didn’t embrace the new world. So we embraced the new world.”

Bell pointed to NBC Sports’ partnership with Buzzfeed, which produced content for the company’s Snapchat Discover Olympics channel as a big risk that paid off in a big way. “That’s something that could have gone south but didn’t,” he said, adding praise for the product that Buzzfeed delivered. Rio was the first Olympics in which NBCU pushed highlights through social media. Rio reinforced the importance of continuing to try to innovate on new platforms as NBCU looks ahead to future Olympics.

“I do think the foundation of the house for the foreseeable future is primetime, but the good news is we’ve been able to build out all these wonderful platforms that are extremely robust,” Bell said. “I think the challenge moving forward, the opportunity for us is to say ‘How can we make the experience on a smartphone or a tablet or a smart TV as polished and as special as people have come to expect with primetime?'”

Standout Athletes of the 2016 Rio Olympics

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  1. Allan says:

    I have watch my last Olympics, for many years I have really enjoyed watching the grand variety of sport during the Olympics, unfortunately the Networks have turned an enjoyable event into a political stage. Several years ago I quit watching main stream media because every show, every newscast, everything on tv promoted a socialist agenda and an Anti-America programming. If it was not for America TV would not even exist let alone the freedom of countries to even have athletes who would compete on a world stage. I am sick and tired of Mainstream Media, your advertisers will not be getting my $.

  2. Ryder Meehan says:

    I think the Beijing Games BROKE.THE.OLYMPICS! THAT was how it’s done. I just remember 100,000 glow in the dark drummers doing backflips and running up the sides of a tower in a spectacle never to be matched. Really nothing will compare to how China set it off 8 years ago.

  3. Bill Ammons says:

    NBC ruined the opening and closing ceremonies. Between endless commercials and the constant yak – yak – yak of the commentators, the opening ceremony was tuned out here for M*A*S*H re runs. And the yak – yak – yak team was back in act on steroids during the closing ceremony. They could not even shut up during the Brazilian national anthem. How about no commentators for the opening and closing ceremonies ? Just scroll some facts along the bottom of the screen. Let us enjoy the program without the mindless chatter from the three talking heads.

  4. Pam Arnold says:

    Of course the ratings for the opening ceremonies were bad. The ten percent of the time they weren’t in commercials, they were making idiotic comments. It was NBC that rendered them unwatchable.

  5. Stephan Yates says:

    It really is awful that one broadcast provider can lock up Olympics rights for so long. NBC just isn’t very good at doing the Olympics.

  6. Richard Sanchez says:

    i watched the Canadian coverage using a digital antenna. it was live, and with minimal talk. as for NBC, I wonder if they are aware of the articles that Buzzfeed publishes, which often include overtly anti-white hit pieces. don’t believe me? do a search and prepare to be disgusted.

  7. Evangeline says:

    Ryan Seacrest, Bob Costa, Tara Lipinski, Johnny Weir, Mary Carillo, et al and showing silly comedy bits rather than the competition. Next time getting a VPN and watching Canadian coverage.

    • Dave says:

      Yes, the “commentary was intrusive”. And someone must believe that Ryan Seacrest is who (we) really want to see. I doubt it. Tara Lipinsky and Johnny Weir are an acquired taste, but surprisingly professional. And Bob Costas and Mary Carillo are the best there is. I have never seen Mary Carillo utilized like this before, and she was a treat!

  8. Laura says:

    Could also be the fact that thanks to social media and ESPN we already know who won before we can even watch the event in prime time! I was so looking forward to the gymnastics all around competition only to find out Biles won hours before I could watch it!

  9. Mel says:

    What they’re missing is that streaming was huge because they didn’t air anything live and the broadcast commentators were idiots vs the streaming commentators (i.e. the beach volleyball coverage) so if you actually care about the olympics you had no choice but to watch everything live online. NBC is the worst at everything, especially the olympics. Someone needs to make a change.org petition to transfer the rights to ESPN

  10. The commentary was silly and intrusive. The saturation of commercials was unbearable. I started hating NBC coverage during the last summer olympics, then even more so the last winter olympics, and this time I spent money to buy a month’s VPN access so I could watch streaming coverage via the BBC instead. NBC needs to get its shit together.

  11. harenews says:

    Its’ time for Comcast do go to Ala Carte.

  12. homosezwut says:

    #Wut… Oh, no… Here they come…

    American Ninja Warrior Olympians
    Dancing with the Star Olympians
    Real Olympian Housewives
    Olympian Apprentice
    The Olympians

  13. BillUSA says:

    Gee, couldn’t have been the mind-numbing number of commercials. Or the time wasted on showcasing homosexuals as if they were some special off-shoot of our species. Couldn’t be the numb-skull interviewers and color (ahem) analysts who went out of their way to prove how highly they regard themselves. No, it wasn’t the Let’s Reform America Hour, it was the 2016 Rio Olympics.

    Give some time to those theories Variety and you won’t seem like the excuse machine for the pinko movement.

  14. makusa8888 says:

    NBC is, frankly, an international embarrassment. It’s no surprise that the online content got good reviews – it actually broadcasts the competitions. The TV viewings, as usual, only broadcast a handful of the sports in their entirety, and the rest was edited to just Americans and medal contenders. Want to watch trampoline, a spectacularly dramatic event? (Seriously, watch it on CBC.) Tough, go online. No television coverage.

    Most Americans still don’t have unlimited data, so we’re stuck with the tripe on NBC’s broadcasts.

    I sincerely hope they lose billions on the games.

  15. Sue B. says:

    NBC’s coverage sucks, period. The announcers WOULD NOT SHUT UP and just let people watch the opening and closing ceremonies. Until NBC improves their coverage people will be tuning out. I watched CBC’s far superior broadcasts.

    • Television Scout says:

      I was about to note the exact same thing you did. NBC has ruined the Olympics coverage over the decades. I remember as a kid watching the Olympics on ABC – they did a far, far superior job than today’s (or yester-year’s) NBC. I think NBC took over the Olympics coverage around 1988/S. Korea? NBC ‘packaged’ the events so poorly, adding their standard ‘Dateline’ like ‘behind-the-scenes’ stories. Bring out the handkerchiefs. That approach may have gained new viewers that the advertisers wanted (women), but ruined the games for those viewers who actually wanted to see events live, with little or no ‘back-stories’ to take time away from the actual events (men).

      I don’t know if ABC (or probably ESPN at this point), could do the Olympics any better in this era of live streaming, etc., but showing live, in-full events without all the NBC-Dateline content would help bring the Olympics back into the hearts-and-minds of the average television/media-consuming viewer who like their sports live.

      And for goodness sake NBC, PLEASE STOP sending your Today Show staff to these events. It is embarrassing and a put-down of the Olympics. Allow the sports people (both men and women) to run the production and show (Costas and co.) and please keep the Today Show people home. If the producers of Today don’t like that approach, tell them to go find another job – and good luck doing so. Believe me, someone else will figure out a way to make a buck on The Today… it’s not rocket science… it’s not.

      • Dave says:

        Only one problem with making ABC out to be something better…. I watched the “Miracle on Ice” in 1980 live – on CBC. ABC delayed it until “prime time”. (Check it out if you don’t believe me.)

        I’m *NOT* defending NBC in any way. I’m just pointing out that “time delayed” Olympics began with ABC, and NBC simply carries on the tradition.

        I wish I knew how to remedy things. I will probably take another decade or two, along with the eventual downfall of what Variety seems to subscribe to – the big 3 OTA networks along with the few Cable networks that managed to squeak into the public mind about 10 years ago. Forget any streaming options.

  16. Annette says:

    Terrible coverage, lousy opening ceremony and Ryan Seacrest…why?

  17. I know sporting events don’t usually see a bump in ratings from DVR (not that the primetime Olympics is live sports 90% of the time). But it would be great to know the actual Live +3 and Live +7 numbers (when available). Did they add 100,000 eyeballs with Live +3 on average? 300,000? More? Less?

  18. EK says:

    With the marquee greatly diminished and viewing patterns due for unpredictably wide revision, NBC will have to make some radical programming changes over the next four years if it can hope to sell significant inventory at big prices. It also has to look at its commentator policies and shake up the outdated concept of who handles this chore and how they do it.

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