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NBC's Olympics: The eyes have it

Posted: February 24, 2014 - 10:56am

NBC Universal's Sochi performance is partly measured in gold, too.

Televising the Olympics is a complex, multi-million dollar business venture that seems to have more riding on it every two years. Beyond attracting millions of people to the broadcast network each night, NBC used the Sochi games to popularize streaming video, develop a cable sports network and launch entertainment programs.

NBC was able to concentrate on these goals largely because pre-Olympic worries about terrorism, security and the safety of people uncomfortable with Russia's gay rights laws faded when competition began.

"If I'm NBC, and I'm looking at the biggest crisis being Bob Costas' eyes, I think it's been a success," said Andrew Billings, a sports media professor at the University of Alabama and author of "Olympic Media: Inside the Biggest Show on Television."

Here's a look at some of those moving parts:

RATINGS

NBC's prime-time viewership averaged 22.1 million people through Friday. Although fading at the end, that number should still land between the 2010 Vancouver games (24.4 million), which had the advantage of live prime-time events, and the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy (20.2 million).

The games are increasingly shutting off competition: 15 rivals' programs, including "Grey's Anatomy," ''American Idol" and "Dancing With the Stars," had higher ratings while competing against the Olympics in 2006, the Nielsen company said. Four years ago, three programs (all "American Idol") beat the games. This year there were none.

"This is the most dominant Olympics in prime-time ever," said Jim Bell, executive producer of the Olympics for NBC. "That's a pretty big deal and a pretty big statement to make, given some of the decisions we made that were not easy ones."

Internally, the most debated move was showing figure skating — the most popular sport in the winter games — live on cable's NBC Sports Network during the day and repackaging the routines at night. That didn't appear to siphon viewers from prime-time, as some feared. The final night of women's figure skating had subpar ratings, but that was likely due to the gold medal fight being between a Russian and South Korean, with no American involved.

And the daytime program launched Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski, NBC's breakout personalities in Sochi.

REVENUES

More importantly for NBC's parent Comcast Corp., the company said the Sochi games will comfortably turn a profit. The company paid $775 million for the rights to the games, with expenses in the $100 million range. At the games' outset, NBC said national ad sales had already exceeded $800 million, and more money was pouring in.

Vancouver may have gotten higher ratings, but NBC lost more than $200 million on them — a combination of a weaker ad market and too much paid for the rights. The expansion of online offerings now gives NBC more space for ads, too.

AGING AUDIENCE

One concern for the future is the Olympics' aging audience, a disturbing trend for advertisers. The median age of the Olympic viewer increased from 50.9 in 2006 to 55.1 this year, despite the addition of snowboard and halfpipe events designed to appeal to young people.

"We grew up at a time when the Olympics were big ideological events," said Brad Adgate, an analyst for Horizon Media, "and I don't think that's the case anymore."

STREAMING

The network streamed all Sochi competition live, more than 1,000 hours compared to three hours in Turin. Some fans were annoyed by a requirement to prove they have cable or satellite subscriptions to watch online, which was the condition providers set to allow NBC to do it. A record was set for most-streamed event three days in a row, topped with 2.1 million streams for the U.S.-Canada men's hockey semifinal.

Creatively, NBC's websites moved beyond straight streams of events. One popular new daytime entry, "Gold Zone," whipped followers from venue to venue for live look-ins, a program modeled after the successful NFL "Red Zone" series.

The websites had occasional navigation issues, but nothing major. "You can be sure if it hadn't worked, we would have heard about it," Bell said. He realized a digital threshold had been crossed when his wife sent him a picture of his teenage son watching the shootout between the Russian and American hockey teams on his iPhone while at a wrestling match, with dozens of people crowded around to catch a glimpse.

The streaming, and the ability of fans to swiftly find results of any competition in a wired world, didn't appear to hurt NBC's packaged highlights in prime-time.

"Even if you know who's going to win, you want to know how," Billings said. "You want to see how it's going to happen."

NBC SPORTS NETWORK

With the daytime figure skating and other events, NBC Universal sought to familiarize viewers with the new NBC Sports Network, and has been excited about the results.

It remains to be seen if the network will have enough compelling programming post-Olympics, but "at least it becomes an 'I know where that is on the dial, let's see what's on' type of channel," Billings said.

SOCIAL MEDIA

NBC established business ties to Twitter and Facebook, but the social media sites have also become the go-to platforms for people who have gripes about coverage. The hashtag #nbcfail, which emerged in the London games in 2012, resurfaced. The biggest ongoing complaint is how NBC packaged the events for prime-time, which is especially noticeable when the time difference prevents the staging of live events.

"If they're able to get through without too much profanity, even if I don't like what they say, I try to respond," Bell said. He's made adjustments to NBC's websites because of suggestions he's seen online.

Twitter is where NBC's bobbles instantly come to light, such as when Christin Cooper's repeated questions about Bode Miller's dead brother brought the skier to tears, taking NBC's "getting personal" production style to an ugly extreme. Viewers also complained about the network offering no live coverage of the opening ceremony and making clumsy edits to fit the time allotted.

Distractions are found there, too, like when ABC's Jimmy Kimmel posted fake video of a wolf supposedly wandering outside American Olympian Kate Hansen's dorm room.

THE HALO

No viewer could miss NBC's aggressive effort to promote other programming through Olympic tie-ins. The most important was launching Jimmy Fallon's tenure as "Tonight" show host. The 8.5 million viewers it averaged during its first week represented the most-watched week for "Tonight" in two decades, since the week of the "Cheers" finale, and dwarfed the audiences of competitors David Letterman and Kimmel, who were both in the two to three million range, Nielsen said. Seth Meyers can only hope for such results when he takes over Fallon's time slot Monday.

The "Today" show beat ABC's "Good Morning America" for the first week since the London Olympics. But there's less chance of a real turnaround there, since the margin of victory was small and due to people who don't watch regularly. "GMA" had the same viewer average the first week of the Olympics as it had the week before, Nielsen said.

Whether it makes a difference with the sitcoms NBC has been touting, only time will tell.

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