The exploits of the world’s best downhill skiers will be recorded with pinpoint precision at the upcoming Pyeongchang Olympics, but the networks showing the Winter Games face a distinctly uphill task in achieving that kind of accuracy when it comes to measuring their viewers.

Today’s fragmenting television viewing landscape is a boon and a bane for Olympics rights holders. Streaming and on-demand viewing mean that audiences in Europe, for example, will be able, for the first time, to watch every second of every Olympic event, live or not. But a proliferation of viewing options brings with it a lot more data, and fully capturing audience information — crucial for setting advertising rates — is beyond the capability of traditional ratings companies.

That has forced broadcasters to devise their own ways of figuring out who is consuming their content, including the wall-to-wall coverage many companies are promising for the Games.

NBC Universal plans to make its Olympic coverage available on broadcast TV, on cable, and via its NBC Sports app, which feeds back viewing data in close to real time. Combined with traditionally harvested ratings information, which offers valuable details like viewer age and gender, the data allow NBC to capture Total Audience Delivery — a more complete picture of who tuned in across TV, mobile, laptop, tablet and other devices.

“We have relied on Nielsen for years,” says Joe Brown, senior VP of Research at NBC Sports Group. “The fact that they delivered something to us that has a nice little bow on it and says, ‘Here is your audience,’ made it somewhat easy, as opposed to a media company getting into the nitty-gritty of the census-level data.”

The Total Audience Delivery system had its coming-out party at the Rio Olympics in 2016 and quickly showed its value. “If you judged NBC on television alone, you would have been short about 2 million viewers per minute,” Brown says.

Discovery shelled out $1.4 billion for Olympic rights in Europe and has sublicensed them to free TV in many territories. Eurosport, the sports network it owns, will show 900 hours of live coverage — 4,000 hours in all — via its TV channels and streaming service Eurosport Player. For Eurosport, the issue of tabulating viewers is even more complicated because it needs to measure results not just across multiple screens but across multiple territories, each with different levels of device penetration, broadband rollout and other characteristics.


Senior executives at Discovery express frustration that the ratings agencies cannot cope with the breadth of its multiplatform offering or present a comprehensive standard measurement accepted by advertisers across the industry. Like NBC, Discovery’s Eurosport is developing its own system.

“We’re redefining television as not just the TV screen but what we’re going to call Total Video, and that will be consumption and engagement across all platforms,” says JB Perrette, president of Discovery Networks Int’l. “We’ll be rolling out a new metric, which we think is more applicable to the 2018 reality of how people are consuming content.”

Exactly what Total Video looks like, how it works and whether it will be 100% ready for Pyeongchang remains to be seen. Like the setup at NBC and elsewhere, it will likely comprise online data blended with traditional ratings.

With incumbent ratings agencies not yet up to speed, industry players are turning to other sources for help in measuring viewership. One such firm is L.A.- and Auckland-based Parrot Analytics, which counts Fox Networks Group and BBC Worldwide among its clients and looks at “demand expression” to produce data for traditional and streamed programming, including from Netflix and Amazon.

Parrot plans to apply its model to sports programming this year after receiving an increasing number of requests from clients, says founder and CEO Wared Seger. “We have now heard this from clients in the U.S., Europe and Asia, specifically requesting that we replicate our approach to measuring the demand for TV shows on a cross-platform, country-specific basis for live sports.”

While the upcoming Winter Games pose a particular challenge for broadcasters and ratings companies, the need to keep measurement systems au courant certainly won’t be extinguished when the Olympic flame goes out in Pyeongchang. “We live in a world where there is a new platform every other day, it seems,” says NBC’s Brown, “let alone with the two-year gap between Olympics.”