The Big Change NBC Must Make to Fix Olympics TV Ratings Woes

Hint: It has nothing to do with time-zone delays or streaming

NBC Olymipics Coverage Ratings Fail
AP Photo/Martin Meissner

With the embers still warm from the freshly extinguished torch marking the end of the Summer Games, it feels almost wrong to ask what NBCUniversal executives are doing to maximize the value of future Olympics. But if they are going to reverse the significant ratings slide suffered in Rio, they are going to need to start now.

Everyone has their theories as to what propelled NBC’s double-digit decline in total viewers vs. the Summer Games in London four years ago, a drop even more alarmingly steep among younger demographics. Some critics have questioned the quality of NBCU’s Olympics coverage. A new theory that went into vogue this year proposed that there isn’t any inherent problem at all with the Games, its TV audience is just feeling the cannibalizing effect of the coverage available on digital platforms.

There’s probably more than a grain of truth to both of those notions. But there’s also an entirely different idea to consider.

Leaving Rio as the fall season draws near feels a little like the last day of summer camp: We’re saying goodbye to all these great new buddies we’ve made over a fairly concentrated period of time, most of whom we barely knew existed before August. That Michael Phelps guy feels like a member of the family by now because he seems to be here every summer for as long as you can remember. And look at what fast friends Simone Biles, Katie Ledecky and Justin Gatlin have become with us, too.

But honestly, if you were asked a month from now what was the name of that woman who seemed to win gold every time she jumped in the pool, are you even going to remember?

Still flush with summer fever right now, you’ll swear you’ll never take off that friendship bracelet Ledecky gave you. But consider the trajectory virtually all Olympic athletes historically maintain in the media: After attaining ubiquity for two weeks, they quickly slip into total obscurity until the months before the next Summer Games ramp up nearly four years from now.

Perhaps it’s high time NBCU change that dynamic by leveraging its considerable assets across media to make sure its athlete stars don’t entirely fade from view between Olympics.

The problem was evident enough from the earliest moments of this Olympics, when from the Opening Ceremony onward, the ratings decline was at its deepest. That the numbers sunk to 30%+ levels before bouncing back is a clear reflection that the pent-up anticipation for the Olympics that should have been there from day one but wasn’t.

The buzz did eventually come once U.S. stars like Phelps and Biles started racking up wins. That amplified the fan frenzy emanating via social media and word-of-mouth from the first wave of viewers to a second influx interested in checking out what the first wave was finding so captivating.

Getting a broader audience just required reminding people of a love for the Games that had been forgotten because it had been too long since they experienced that love. That’s not how it should be.

The Olympics may be better served being marketed in the same mold that shapes the playoffs of U.S. pro sports leagues, more as the culmination of a regular season that drives momentum across many months until the dramatic conclusion of a championship face-off.

The Olympics don’t really follow that same arc. The training and trials that play out for years before the Games–ignored by all but a tiny segment of the most diehard fans–need to have the visibility of, say, the NBA during the regular season.

That longer lead time not only creates more entry points for fans to get hooked on the Olympics, it better establishes the incredible stakes involved in athletes who train and compete for the entirety of their lives to get that one shot at a medal.

But the journey needs more visibility as it happens, which isn’t really the NBCU approach. The company just prefers to pack that drama into the Olympics coverage itself in heart-tugging segments that look back at the journey after it has already happened.

Perhaps NBCU operates with the philosophy that the very scarcity of the Games is what fuels its allure. Call that the Halley’s comet approach: As incredible a sight as a meteor soaring through the night sky is to behold, it would be considerably less incredible if Halley’s comet lit up the world on a weekly basis.

But in the increasingly fragmented world in which media attractions of all types vie for a decreasing amount of attention, that may not be the way to go anymore.

Not spreading that wealth throughout the year on the wide variety of NBCU platforms puts the cart before the horse: Viewers are expected to come to the Olympics already captivated.

It’s not that the many competitions that lead into the Olympics aren’t available to be seen on TV. Going forward, that availability will probably be at an all-time high: NBCU’s acquisition last year of the content previously owned by World Championship Sports Network will mean 1,418 hours of “regular season” Olympic content is coming to channels NBC, NBC Sports Network and Universal HD–a 107% increase over what NBCU put on the air in 2015. The IOC itself is also launching an all-Olympics streaming service immediately after the Games ends.

But mere availability is only half the battle. What matters much more is how NBCU uses its most prominent media assets to not only cross-promote that availability year-round but program those assets with Olympic-themed content that lays out an irresistible narrative: root for compelling athletes every step of the way along their arduous march to glory.

To some degree, the NBCU portfolio isn’t as well set up to do this as some of its rival conglomerates like Disney or Fox, where ESPN and Fox Sports are far more powerful than NBCSN as a platform for providing elevated year-round visibility of Olympic sports side by side with more popular sports.

But considering a significant portion of Olympic fans aren’t typical sports fans, it’s actually OK to use brands that wouldn’t seem to have anything to do with sports, like Bravo or E!.

That doesn’t mean the Kardashians suddenly need to surrender some hours to equestrian trials. To the contrary, driving excitement for the Olympics all year shouldn’t simply mean giving airtime to more competitions. What it should mean is taking some of the unscripted content that gets limited space during the Olympics and letting it play out in the longer form of a weekly series like the Kardashians. Find an athlete who is interesting both on and off the field as they train and compete in order to get fans engaged rather than just airlifting them into a two-week period assuming everyone is already interested.

Matt Lauer, Jimmy Fallon and Andy Cohen should be talking to these people on air even two years away from the next Summer Games just to maintain their profiles. Yes, these athletes should only be focused on their demanding training schedules, but their endorsement deals will thank them later for taking a little time off.

But TV shouldn’t be the only place where that narrative should resonate. Luring younger audiences means telling the stories of the Olympians on platform like Snapchat, which NBCU deployed digital partners like Buzzfeed, but only as the Games drew near.

Marketing at massive proportions shouldn’t be a difficult concept for NBCU to grasp considering they already spend a lot of time and energy synergizing everything from cable channels to movie previews to local newscasts in support of key launches like the latest animated movie from its Illumination division. Fittingly for a multifaceted marketing blitz NBCU CEO Steve Burke refers to as Project Symphony, it is too often too concentrated on delivering a crescendo, pushing all promotion into the weeks immediately leading up to a launch, rather than stretching that out over a longer haul.

NBCU does lay the tracks for its Olympic marketing efforts as early as six months before the Games via a marketing machine that brings in tons of athletes for all kinds of promotional shoots that feed many different divisions of the company. But the fruits of that labor is still too tied to the timing of the event itself.

When you’re spending $12 billion through 2032 on a property, the usual tricks to drive tune-in aren’t gong to cut it. The Olympics needs to be woven throughout the day-to-day fabric of all NBCU’s consumer-facing assets. Just dropping a set of rings underneath the Peacock logo in the bug on the right corner of the screen isn’t enough. Hibernating for the next 700 days or so until the Winter Games get going is misguided brand stewardship.

Like any good athlete, NBCU will review the tapes and study its form in search of what adjustments need to be made in order to improve. But the time is now for NBCU to think just as much about what gets programmed on its platforms about the Olympics when the Olympics aren’t going on as the company does when the Olympics are unfolding.

Standout Athletes of the 2016 Rio Olympics