NBCU Sports Chief Mark Lazarus Talks Super Bowl Ads, Olympics Viewing and Thursday Night Football

Mark Lazarus is the chairman of NBC Broadcasting and Sports, but his job might be more accurately described as the executive in charge of NBCUniversal’s most expensive programming.

Lazarus has the ultimate responsibility for TV’s most watched primetime program, “Sunday Night Football,” not to mention NBCUniversal’s Olympics coverage. The work involves wrangling massive rights fees, an army of producers and tech crew, a sense of how to make it available to the on-demand generation and, of course, the discipline to make it all profitable for NBCU. Lazarus offers Brian Steinberg his take on the modern sports viewer — and hints at how NBCU intends to sell pricey Super Bowl ads, which have been valued at more than $5 million for half a minute.

Variety: NBC Sports has three major events over the next 16 months: a Super Bowl, a Winter Olympics and its first World Cup. How does that kind of pace change what your folks do in terms of resources and operations?

Mark Lazarus: We will have about 100 people who will go directly from Minneapolis to Pyeongchang, South Korea, the night after the Super Bowl. Some of those people, like myself, would normally have been in South Korea [for the Olympics] five days earlier. We’ll be doing a little bit of catching up. It does stretch resources a little bit thin, but we are involved with two of the biggest events in the media landscape, the two biggest sporting events in the world. The [soccer] World Cup comes later, predominantly manned by Telemundo, though we are utilizing our Olympic expertise at NBC Sports.

Variety: I’m sure you monitored the linear TV ratings last year for the Summer Olympics and football season with a little anxiety. What’s your opinion on how modern viewers are experiencing sports? Are they taking more to live streaming and alternate screens? If so, what does that mean for how NBCUniversal networks present games?

Lazarus: In the Olympics, we still saw a massive consumption – more consumption than we ever had for any Olympic Games – but it was across a whole lot of different platforms: linear broadcast TV and cable, digital streaming, social media, connected TVs. To be sure, linear TV was down a bunch, but it was still a 14.4 rating. When you add in ratings for linear cable coverage that was on simultaneously, it was a 15.5. It would have been the number-one show on TV…People are coming back to the future of how they watch TV: It is communal on a big screen, but through a connected device, not necessarily through the cable or satellite distribution mechanism. We know that consumption is going to be huge. We have realistic expectations that the Olympics from South Korea will be the largest consumed Olympics. It’s just going to be across all of those platforms and that’s how we are selling it. That’s how we are going to account for it, and that’s what the advertisers expect of us.

Our football season was off a bit, from our point of view. The first few weeks are really important to our season, and last year we got snakebitten. We knew we had the Broncos playing the Panthers, but we knew Peyton Manning wasn’t going to be part of it. Our opening Sunday had the Patriots, but there was no Tom Brady, because he was suspended. Our next Sunday had the Cowboys, but no Tony Romo, because he was hurt. In a star-driven league, we lost some of our big stars early on. I predict a nice bounce back from the NFL this season.

Variety: The NFL says it’s considering new ways to deploy commercial breaks in linear broadcasts. What’s your sense of what they are trying to do?

Lazarus: We are working on formatting that reduces the number of breaks, but maybe are a little bit longer, maybe 30 seconds longer. We may take out some of the breaks. I think that will enhance the viewing experience. When you have a play, take a break, have a play, take a break, it does not exactly lend to the flow of the game. I applaud them and really, whether it’s us, CBS, Fox, or ESPN, we are all in this together to find the best way to have a good flowing, exciting game.

Variety: NBC has the Super Bowl next year, but some advertisers and buyers are growing wary of the $5 million-plus price tag. What do you tell advertisers who fret over the cost of being in the big game?

Lazarus: The price is commensurate with the value in terms of the audience. I understand the creative costs and risks being taken. What we would say is never before have we had a Super Bowl followed by an Olympics, another huge platform to exploit that creative, so get involved with both. It’s a way to get a lot of value out of your creative execution. We think that’s a really interesting ploy and we are in the market with people to do that. We think it’s a smart way for us to approach it and a smart use of creative.

Variety:  You’ve been exploring some reality programming on NBSN. In a TV world stuffed to the gills with attitude filled studio shows, what do you think the next hit format will be?

Lazarus: Our strategy is to look at the products, the events that we have, whether it’s Nascar, Premier League, Hockey, Tour de France, Formula One – the tent pole products at NBC Sports Network  and Golf Channel-– to go deep with those audiences. We are not trying to be all things to all people. We think we have built-in audiences and built-in demand for these sports, and we are going to super serve them with content around those products, and that’s what our unscripted or reality has been focused on. We don’t wake up any single day and say we wish we were one of our competitors. They have their niche. They have their place. With our product, which is largely exclusive to our air, we have real value to cable operators, broadcasters, advertisers, and fans.

 Variety:Thursday Night Football” is up for grabs again after this season. What’s your sense of what the NFL might do with it and does NBCU remain interested in the property?

Lazarus: There has been a lot of discussion about whether Thursday night should continue. Does it dilute the product? I think there is some argument that could be said that Thursday night makes it harder for the league to schedule all of the Sunday games they are trying to schedule with the highest ratings. That being said, if there is a Thursday-night package, NBC wants to be a part of it.

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