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Big Data Summit: NBC’s Jim Bell on ‘Framing the Narrative’ of Olympics Ratings

Exponential growth in the program hours generated by NBC’s biennial Olympics presentations have turned the sports franchise into a cottage industry of audience data and technological innovation for NBCUniversal.

But the Olympics also present a metrics challenge for NBCU and Comcast, Olympics exec producer Jim Bell said Wednesday evening during a Q&A held in connection with Variety’s Big Data Summit, which runs Thursday at the Montage hotel in Beverly Hills.

The August summer games in Rio de Janeiro were the most profitable ever for NBCU, the most dominant when it came to primetime viewership and the most viewed games across liner and digital platforms — to the tune of 200 billion minutes, Bell said during his conversation with Variety co-editor in chief Andrew Wallenstein. Yet media coverage of NBC’s performance focused on the fact that linear ratings were down from the 2012 summer games in London.

“We probably could have done a better job of framing that narrative in advance,” Bell said of using data to demonstrate the reach of NBCU’s Olympics coverage. Among the staggering stats: The Rio games generated nearly 7,000 hours of program content, compared to 171 hours for the Atlanta summer games in 1996. “That’s 20 years ago, not 200 years ago,” Bell said. “We’re clearly at this transitional and transformational moment.”

NBCU live streamed every event from Rio, as it has since the 2012 games. But some 97% of Rio Olympics viewing came from linear NBC telecasts during primetime, which also generated more than 75% of NBCU’s revenue from the games. Much of the streaming viewing was done through connected TVs, which tells Bell that the Olympics remains a big-screen event.

The “grand scale and scope” of the sporting events “has something to do with why so much consumption still takes place on linear television,” he said. NBC’s research confirms that the games still have the power to drive multigenerational viewing. “For the big moments, it got families together in a room around a screen,” he said.

But Rio itself also had an image problem as the games began, with the Zika virus and pollution posing a threat to athletes and President Dilma Rousseff facing an impeachment trial.

“We were really framing Rio from a marketing standpoint as a sexy, fun place that everybody wanted to go,” he said. “What we found for the opening ceremony was that we didn’t get a lot of people tuning in at the start. We had to claw our way back from that,” he said.


Once the games are in the history books, the audience data-mining process begins in earnest. “The data dump from Rio is formidable,” Bell said. “There are stacks of Power Points that would make your head spin.”

(Pictured: Andrew Wallenstein and Jim Bell)

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