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Volume 23 No. 29
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After London, NBC goes all in on Rio streaming

The hallmark of NBC’s Olympic coverage always has been to protect its prime-time programming block — the hours between 8 and 11 p.m. ET that draw the most viewers and the biggest ad commitments. In previous years, the network would hold back talking about the results for some events on-air in an effort to pique viewer interest in prime time.

NBC’s tape-delay strategy worked well for the better part of two decades, as the network’s prime-time slot during the Olympics consistently drew the biggest ratings on television.

But four years ago in London, NBC found that the presence of its online streams did not cut into the TV network’s prime-time ratings. That caused the network’s relatively new owner, Comcast, to chase a different strategy for next month’s Games: It won’t hold anything back. Comcast’s top executives believe that its plan to stream 6,000 hours of Olympic competition — including streams that will compete with the prime-time show — ultimately will be a marketing campaign to draw more viewers to prime time.

NBCUniversal’s Steve Burke (left) and Comcast’s Brian Roberts foresee big ratings gains.
Photo by: VIRGINIA SHERWOOD / NBC SPORTS GROUP
“The big learning is that you can actually increase prime time by increasing 24-hour-a-day access to Olympic programming,” said NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke. “The feeling was at some point, the more you do outside of prime or the more you do during prime on other vehicles, the more you’re going to reduce. The reality is that in a fragmented world all that streaming is really a form of promotion. There are so many viewing opportunities for people, you need to get wherever they are all day long. That will only increase prime.”

Burke recalled a moment at the 2012 Olympics in London — NBC’s first with Comcast as an owner — when NBC tried to ignore a Michael Phelps race that occurred outside of prime time.

“Everybody knew that Michael Phelps had won, but you would turn on NBC and nobody would mention it,” Burke said. “You can’t hide from people. We’ve learned that you’re better off exposing everything.”

Next month’s Games in Rio will be the first “live” Olympics since Comcast bought NBC in 2011, meaning that the Games are taking place in roughly the same time zone as the U.S. As such, many of the top events will be produced live in prime time, which should help NBC’s ratings. But NBC also is confident that the network’s prime-time television ratings will be stronger because of all of the streaming that’s planned.

“Our theory is that if you widen the top of the funnel, more comes through the funnel, and the prime-time audience will be the largest audience in television history,” said Brian Roberts, Comcast chairman and CEO. “We’ll see. The advertisers believe that — we’re up 30-40 percent in advertising since London.”

Burke believes NBC’s streaming plans also are effective in bringing younger viewers to the Games. He referenced the London Olympics, which he said registered the biggest prime-time ratings increases in the younger demographics. Through deals with Snapchat and BuzzFeed, in addition to its streaming plans, Burke believes Rio is set for even bigger gains.

“Our theory is that if you widen the top of the funnel, more comes through the funnel, and the prime-time audience will be the largest audience in television history.”

BRIAN ROBERTS,
COMCAST CHAIRMAN AND CEO

“We directly attribute that to streaming,” he said. “The most important thing we can do is to make sure that the Olympics continue to appeal to young people. … The way you do that is to stream everything, make sure you have a presence on Snapchat and Facebook and YouTube and everywhere else. Then you have a tone and a way of presenting the Olympics — whether it’s the interstitial or the marketing or the up close and personals or the music, which is going to play a bigger role in this Olympics.”

Overall, the number of people watching individual streams has been relatively small — most came in well below 1 million users in London. “Numbers will be well below a level where you would worry about the effectiveness of the streaming,” Burke said.

As the country’s biggest cable operator, Comcast sees ancillary benefits from streaming the Games. Roberts said many new developments on Comcast’s X1 platform come as a result of its Olympic ties. “It’s pushing our team to the max,” Roberts said. “I’m hearing the right amount of stress and angst.”

Roberts also expects the Olympics to help bring viewers to other parts of NBC’s schedule, like “The Tonight Show” and “Today” show.

“What can you do with that platform for a company that has film and theme parks and cable,” Roberts said.

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.