The Rio Olympics Are Where TV Finally Sees the Future
Let’s get this out of the way, Olympics deniers: If you watch television at all, you’ve probably watched the Games. They’re simply a straight-up TV phenomenon. The Olympics still hold the record for most-watched global television event of all time—70 percent of the world watched at least some portion of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But chances are, the way you’re watching the 2016 Rio Games is markedly different from the way you watched the Games when you were a kid, or even the 2012 London Games.
Time was, watching the Olympics just meant turning on your TV. The Games played in the background, and you’d just yell to anyone else in the house when your favorite athlete finally appeared. (“Hey everyone, Phelps is on!”)
Not 2016. This was the year of the truly on-demand, a la carte, multi-platform, hyper-social, super-streaming Olympics. Chances are, you figured out which events you really wanted to see, and you made it happen. You gasped when Shaunae Miller dove over the finish line to win gold in the women’s 400 meter race. You cheered as Simone Biles executed a near-flawless floor routine (and grimaced when she slipped on the balance beam and got the bronze medal). Maybe you tweeted that funny clip of those Filipino divers spectacularly wiping out, but being surprisingly good-natured about it afterwards. Of course (of course!) you saw Usain Bolt cement his title as the. Fastest. Man. Alive. If you didn’t have cable—and hey, lots of us don’t—you streamed those moments or tracked them down on Facebook.
The Filipino National Diving Team Is AWFUL at diving pic.twitter.com/xYzdMREtg5
— Pardon My Take (@PardonMyTake) August 8, 2016
That’s just how we watch television these days. You pull up what you want to watch, when you want to watch it, wherever you want to watch it. And this year, the Olympics broadcasting overlord—NBC Universal, which owns the official rights to the Games—has dramatically expanded the options for streaming and sharing. It inked official partnerships with Snapchat, Facebook, and Instagram to let people see highlights on their phones. It made videos of every Olympic event available on its app. And for the first time, it let people stream primetime coverage of the Rio Games.
But wait, you might ask, aren’t sports supposed to be the big sticking point for The Future of Television—which is to say, true, on-demand, bundle-free television content? In the TV biz, live sports are supposedly the one fallback traditional networks and cable providers have to keep consumers paying and watching television the traditional way. And in a way, despite all the ways the Olympics seem to have opened up this year, that’s still the case. Because NBC owns the rights to the Olympics for years to come, it still gets to dictate how everyone else gets to watch the Games—at least to a point.
But as the 2016 Rio Olympics have shown, audiences do have the power to pressure even an old, established television network like NBC to bend. Ultimately, this year has pointed the way to a new kind of compromise, one that networks and advertisers are increasingly willing to make, because it just makes good business sense.
Deals, Deals, Deals
To snag the Games, NBC paid more than $12 billion in two separate deals for the right to broadcast ten Olympics from 2014 to 2032 across virtually all media platforms: streaming, cable television, mobile, and the Internet. That means even online publications like WIRED can’t use content from the Rio Games without clearing it with NBC first. (This is the only reason we haven’t been publishing Olympic GIFs for you, dear readers.)
And NBC has good reason to shell out. In 2008, the Beijing Olympics set a record in the US as the most-watched event in television history. The event that eventually dethroned it? The 2012 London Olympics. Needless to say, that sets high hopes for Rio’s ratings.
But so far, they’ve been a disappointment. In 2012, NBC pulled in 31.1 million viewers during prime time Olympics broadcasts. The Rio Games, by contrast, have attracted around 28 million daily viewers on average. “Everyone is talking about these Olympics versus London,” NBC Sports Group Chairman Mark Lazarus said in a recent interview with Sports Illustrated. “London was an A+ and Rio is an A.”
But that doesn’t necessarily mean the Rio Games are really reaching fewer people. Audiences are watching the Olympics in new ways, and the old ways of measuring audiences haven’t caught up. “There’s no comparable digital standard to Nielsen so we don’t really know how to measure views,” says Paul Verna, a senior analyst for research firm eMarketer. The network itself has sought to reframe the story by doubling down on the idea that audiences may just have shifted to streaming. In its press releases promoting the success of the Olympics, NBC touted not traditional broadcast audience numbers but “live streaming minutes.” As of the tenth day of the Games, NBC said, Rio 2016 reached two billion live streaming minutes—already more than the combined total of all previous Games streamed since the network started a live-streaming option during the 2006 Winter Games.
Olympic (Television) Performance
Between changing audience demands and changing metrics for measuring that demand, NBC seems to have staked out a hybrid strategy that combines new formats with the tried-and-true. The NBC Sports app buzzes throughout the day with alerts prompting you to watch events live. But come 8 o’clock, NBC still airs polished, primetime packages recapping the big events of the Olympic day in hopes of attracting a big, broad audience.
And that approach still seems to be working, despite social media spoilers. “People still want to tune in and see the show, and they enjoy the packaging,” says Dave Campanelli, senior vice president and director of national broadcast at ad buyer Horizon Media. Instead of cannibalizing audience, the optimist’s argument goes, NBC’s deals with the likes of Facebook and Snapchat have expanded what it means to watch the Games. “It’s meant to enhance your experience,” Campanelli says.
Whether they enhance or not, one thing these newer platforms mean is just lots more Olympics than ever before. The network says it’s showing 6,755 hours of Olympic action distributed across its TV and digital networks—1,220 more hours than the 2012 Olympics. And advertisers are buying in. This year, NBC hit what it called a new record for Olympic advertising—$1.2 billion in national ad sales in the week before the Games started. That’s a 20 percent increase from four years ago. As long as those dollars keep coming in, NBC has no reason to pull back on how much of the Olympics you can watch, and where and how you can watch them. And if it works for the Olympics, networks may be more willing than ever to let you watch the rest of TV that way, too.
Originally posted here: