When it comes to television ratings for the Olympic Games, there remains one indisputable fact: It is a massive, recurring hit on a scale beyond anything else in the modern media landscape, including regular-season NFL games.
Still, Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBC Sports Group, felt compelled to remind everyone of that on a conference call with reporters Thursday that became mildly contentious at times.
“Broadcast right now is at an unbelievable pace,” he said. “We’re averaging well over a 15 rating. There is nothing on television averaging a 15 rating. That would be the No. 1 show, the No. 1 series, on television.
“And let’s not forget that’s not just an hour of scripted for 22 weeks. That’s three to four hours a night for 17 days. That’s a lot of hours of really high ratings.”
And all of that was before Thursday’s prime-time show, which featured more American triumphs (live) in the pool and (on tape delay) at the gymnastics venue. Overnight ratings released early Friday portended a strong final viewership total.
Through Wednesday, NBC’s prime-time shows were averaging 15.5 percent of homes and 28.2 million viewers, a little higher than that when cable and digital outlets were added to create what NBC is calling Total Audience Delivery.
Even the TAD numbers, though, consistently have been lower than those for comparable nights in London in 2012.
Most viewers who enjoy the Olympics are not particularly interested in the excruciatingly complex possible answers, but advertisers are, as are journalists who cover the television and advertising businesses.
So it was that Lazarus and Alan Wurtzel, president of research and media development for NBC Universal, opened Thursday’s call with a combined 2,124 words explaining (and defending) the numbers before a question had been asked.
Lazarus opened with, “Rio 2016 is a huge hit. We are aggregating audiences at a scale that nobody has ever seen before. To top that, this will be our most economically successful Games in history, and it’s by far the most viewer-friendly TV event of all time.”
What is complicating the discussion is what complicates everything about media measurement in 2016: the ever-expanding array of delivery options and tonnage of content from which viewers can choose.
London was the first time NBC streamed every competition live, and this is the first time it has been able to show marquee sports such as swimming and track live in prime time while also showing other live events on its cable outlets.
Total hours of content: 6,755.
Still, though, vastly more people like their Olympics packaged and on TV in prime time than on their computers during the day. Hence the popularity of gymnastics events that occurred in late afternoon but are shown after 11 p.m.
So while NBC reached a record 1.28 billion live streamed minutes Thursday, that remains a blip on the overall radar compared to the old-fashioned, prime-time, Bob Costas-hosted product.
“We programmed to the opportunity that came before us,” Lazarus said. “We programmed where consumer behavior is growing. We programmed marketing plans and desire to intersect customers in different ways.”
It is highly probable NBC will fall short of the prime-time ratings estimates it gave to advertisers, but Lazarus said such contractual matters would be worked out by the end of the Games. More broadly, he is pleased with the direction NBC is following.
“Overall, our ratings consumption is meeting our expectations, the mix is just a little different,” he said. “Cable and digital are continuing to grow at a fast rate. That’s one of the reasons why our Olympic deal is so good.
“We have all the rights to every platform through the year 2032. We can alter our plans from Games to Games as technology and behaviors continue to change. Along the way we’re crossing the bridge of how to measure all this. We’re doing it in real time during these Summer Games and we’ve introduced for the Rio Olympics our Total Audience Delivery to measure consumption across broadcast, cable and digital platforms.
“NBC broadcast is not the only way people are consuming the Olympics, just as newspapers and magazines are not only consumed in print. While prime-time broadcast TV viewing on NBC will remain the biggest way that people consume the Olympics, we also understand that to millennials and younger viewers, prime-time is really, quote/unquote, ‘my time.’
“They want to watch on their terms, and that’s why moving forward we’ll continue to adapt to viewer behavior with our coverage on multiple platforms.”
Lazarus said even many young viewers are watching the Olympics in the traditional fashion, though. Seventeen percent of adults watching in prime time are from ages 18 to 34, compared to 10 percent during the last television season.
“When we get to Pyeongchang in 2018 and Tokyo in 2020, we’ll again have this structure for advertisers and media partners that reflect this evolution and consumption,” he said. “We are so confident in our delivery that we’ve booked 30 million more [dollars] in advertising since the Games began, which is just another sign of our success.”
Lazarus’ opening comments were Modern Media Consumption 101. Wurtzel’s were an advanced course. One of his nuggets: “Between August 5 and 10, the Olympics on NBC generated 35 times more [social media] engagements than Taylor Swift, 16 times more than Pokemon Go, and the Team USA athletes generated a total of 34 million engagements, 43 percent more than all three Kardashian sisters combined. And that’s star power.”
Go on . . .
“Let’s not forget the newest Olympic craze, cupping, the treatment Michael Phelps made famous with those dark circles,” Wurtzel said. “Olympic exposure has already resulted in 100,000 Twitter mentions, Wikipedia reported a 5,000 percent increase in cupping searches on its site, and there have been 2.7 million video views on Facebook of Michael getting cupped.”
The Olympics is unlike most other athletic events, including its appeal to casual sports fans in general and to women in particular. Over the first six nights of the Games, 55 percent of NBC’s adult viewers were women.
That does not excuse overgeneralizing about female viewers, many of whom are avid sports fans year-round.
NBC Sports marketing executive John Miller was harshly criticized before the Games for telling Philly.com, “The people who watch the Olympics are not particularly sports fans. More women watch the Games than men, and for the women, they’re less interested in the result and more interested in the journey. It’s sort of like the ultimate reality show and miniseries wrapped into one.”
Asked about that, Lazarus said, “The way we create our storytelling and our narrative, mixed in with incredibly compelling competition, I think is working for men, women and children. And that’s our goal.
“This is a very big tent and all are welcome. We program, we schedule, and we try to create a show around the competitions that’s welcoming to all. And I think so far we’re finding success against all of those metrics.”
One of the things about the Olympics that forever has annoyed avid sports fans is the failure to show events live, a debate that rages on even with NBC offering every competition live on the Internet.
On Thursday, one of ESPN’s most prominent announcers, Chris Fowler, tweeted, “In era of digital inundation, how many are willing to live in bubble for coverage of historic sports story delayed more than five hours?”
To which Jim Bell, NBC Olympics’ executive producer, tweeted back, “So far about 30 million people a night.”
Said Lazarus, “We program a lot of live content. There’s only so many hours in the day, so some of it has to be packaged. And things like gymnastics are very difficult and sluggish to show live.
“We make it available live through our streaming products, but we think having it put on in a way that makes more sense to a broad viewing audience, not to the gymnastics aficionado who really know the sport.
“But, again, we’re pulling 20-some-odd rating points for gymnastics. Those aren’t people who watch gymnastics every week or are fully knowledgeable in the sport. So part of our job is to try to help inform them and make the sport bigger.”
The months leading up to the Games were full of reports of Rio’s potential lack of preparedness. How have the logistical aspects of NBC’s experience gone?
“For us, largely, things are going very well,” Lazarus said. “The events are taking place and the venues are operating well. Our ability to move around and get to where we need to be has been fairly seamless.
“You’re dealing with normal traffic patterns of a major international city, but in general, it’s gone very smoothly. And I think all the hoopla that we heard about, surrounding whether or not Rio could pull this off—so far they’ve pulled it off without a hitch.”