How NBC Can Take Home the Gold in the London Olympics

Whether NBC acts on it or not, the research it unveiled yesterday about viewership of the Vancouver Winter Olympics offers a partial road map for how it should cover the Summer Games in London in 2012.

Here are some key findings:

  • More than 50 percent of Americans (171 million people) have watched some part of the Games.
  • The vast majority of Olympic viewing -- 93 percent -- occurs on broadcast television.
  • Most online viewing consists of people who missed an event the first time around, though there is a market for re-viewing things you've already seen, at least when it comes to Johnny Weir.
  • About 32 million people have watched some of the Games online, more than double the number who did just two years ago during the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.
  • Viewership of the Olympics on mobile devices has jumped 68 percent since Beijing. All told, mobile channels (including the Web), have accounted for 58.2 million page views; mobile users have streamed four times as many videos thus far as they did in 2008.
  • There's a 57 percent increase in viewership of these Games among the 18 to 24 demographic compared to the 2006 Winter Games in Torino.
  • In terms of TV viewership, NBC has had a (rare) resurgence to its one-time ratings glory, despite consumer complaints about it not airing events live. NBC ranked first for the week of Feb. 15 among all adults under 54, and had seven of the top eight shows.
Conclusion: NBC has a great property in the Olympics, but it should expect further transformational changes in media habits before London. And it needs to adapt to these changes both in terms of how it produces its coverage and how it monetizes it.

Online. With its interactivity and on-demand qualities, online can serve as the focal point of Games coverage, being a consumer guide to NBC's entire cross-platform strategy, and also one of the first stops when it comes to seeing events live. The big question: whether the network can convince advertisers that these more active Olympic consumers are every bit as profitable -- if not more so -- than the passive TV ones. As logical as that sounds, advertisers will take some persuading. They still love nothing so much as a 30-second ad airing in prime time.

Mobile. As of this writing, smartphone penetration in the U.S. hovers at around 17 percent; that number stood at 11 percent during the Beijing Games. Two years from now, both the market share of these video-enabled devices and the sophistication of the devices themselves will be that much better. The easy part for NBC will be creating more mobile-friendly content. Unfortunately, mobile advertising is still in its infancy, accounting for only $416 million in 2009, far less than one percent of the $117 billion spent on advertising in the U.S. last year.

Social media. The resurgence of interest in the Winter Games among younger people is a sign of the influence of social media in building interest in the Games. This means two things need to happen: a concerted effort to create interest in the Games and certain athletes before the Games begin, and also to become more sophisticated about using social media while the Games are happening. As one example, the network needs to do a better job than it has in Vancouver of making it intuitive for users to share content from the Games. The social media strategy also needs to include getting the International Olympic Committee to loosen its nutty blogging restrictions for participants, as well as building social media packages for advertisers.

It's impossible to know how people would have viewed the Olympics if they'd had more choices. Still, it's obvious that NBC needs to make the following changes to its TV presentation to adjust to what have become the media rules of the road-- give consumers what they want, where and when they want it:

Broadcast TV. Those high ratings numbers for the Games don't tell us one really important thing: how pissed off those millions of viewers were that they were forced into watching the Games when NBC wanted them to. While we can safely assume that prime-time is where advertisers will still want to place the majority of their money, NBC is still going to have to re-invent the prime-time broadcast -- as a recap of the day's activities with compelling additional content. Ratings will be hurt by this, but there's little alternative unless NBC wants consumers actively rooting for another network to win broadcasting rights to the Games.

Cable TV. Of all the strange things about how NBC covered these Games, the meager involvement of its cable properties is the most perplexing. Here you have a medium with built-in distribution and advertiser buy-in, capable of showing a plethora of events live, and instead you continue, for the most part, to air your usual programming? Anyway, even as mobile, social and online viewership continue to grow, cable is the surest, quickest route to both adapting to consumer wants and monetizing the revamped Games in the short-term. Right now, cable advertising is still priced at a huge discount compared with broadcast, even when individual cable shows have more viewers than some broadcast ones. NBC has two years to move advertisers off of that bias (which will also bode well for its cable revenues overall).

Yes, there's a distinct theme here: convincing advertisers that newer channels are just as worthy as older ones. The fact that NBC is committed to the 2012 London Games means it has to do convincing. The road forward may be bumpy, but it must be traveled on. Consumers are already well down it.