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Volume 21 No. 48
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Streaming results modest despite lofty expectations

NBC’s overall ratings performance from Pyeongchang drove home just how small the digital streaming audience really is.
Photo: NBC Sports Group

The South Korean Games were supposed to be the streaming Olympics. Given the 14-hour time difference between Pyeongchang and the East Coast, a record number of Americans were expected to watch the Games digitally rather than on traditional television sets.


Streaming content still may have its day — it probably will. But for now, television remains the dominant platform, and it’s not even close. NBC’s results over 2 1/2 weeks demonstrated just how powerful television’s reach remains. NBC and its cable channels accounted for more than 98 percent of all viewing during the event even though NBC streamed every single event and made replays available on demand. 

NBC’s streaming numbers bottomed out during the closing ceremony with 63,000 streams on a per-minute basis — a number that was so low it could not be counted as part of NBC’s Total Audience Delivery (TAD) measurement.


The percentage of viewers watching the Olympics digitally is in line with what other TV networks are seeing in other sports. But expectations going into South Korea were that streams would take off, in large part because of the time difference. Expectations were so great that NBC set up the TAD measurement that counted digital viewers the same way it counted linear TV numbers, and the network’s ad sales group developed ratings guarantees based off that number.


The number of streams did not disappoint NBC executives; they were within an industry average. Some streams did particularly well, such as the U.S.-Canada women’s hockey gold-medal match, which ranks as NBC Sports Digital’s fifth-largest hockey audience, trailing only four matches from Sochi.


But NBC’s overall ratings performance from Pyeongchang hammered home just how small the digital streaming audience really is.


“In comparison to television, it’s still relatively small,” said Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBC Broadcasting and Sports. “When you have things that are on both television and streamable, it’s still a TV linear-dominant medium. That’s not just for us. That’s for everybody.”


In fact, Lazarus cited internal NBC research that showed that most streaming during the Olympics was done via connected TVs. That means that even most of the streamers were watching the Olympics in a conventional television setting.


“They were watching it on something that was hanging on their wall — through a streaming device — which we obviously are fine with,” Lazarus said.


In fact, the biggest gainer during the Winter Olympics was NBCSN, a channel that, like others, has been negatively affected by cord cutters. For the first time, NBC scheduled live prime-time programming on NBCSN, which helped not only the channel’s ratings (it will be the highest-rated month in NBCSN’s history) but also its distribution. NBCSN added 650,000 homes heading into March, tops among all cable sports networks.


“Certainly the broadcast network was far more dominant, but we got a nice bump for NBCSN,” Lazarus said.


Overall, NBC’s viewership was down from Sochi four years ago. But several media executives and ad buyers contacted for this story were effusive about the Olympics’ viewership — especially considering the downward ratings trends that are affecting all parts of the television business.


Here are three main takeaways from the Olympics:


The Olympics dominate prime time.

The Olympics have been the top-rated show for 74 consecutive Olympic nights. It has won 438 consecutive half hours in prime time. Not since episodes of “American Idol,” shown during the Vancouver Olympics, has any program even come close to matching an Olympic rating.


Looking at just the NBC-only average in prime time over 18 nights, the network’s viewership was 82 percent ahead of the combined rating from its broadcast TV competition (ABC+CBS+Fox). Compare that to the gap from Sochi, which was 43 percent. Eight years ago, the Vancouver Olympic ratings were only 9 percent higher than NBC’s broadcast competitors.


“It is still the biggest event in the media landscape,” Lazarus said. “It is a huge multi-generational viewing party. It will be the No. 1 TV show of the year. Truly, the spirit of the Olympics transfers through to television.”


Olympics are faring better than TV.

Viewers consumed 104.8 billion minutes of Olympic programming across four networks from South Korea, down 6 percent from Sochi, when 111.8 billion minutes were consumed across five networks.


In South Korea, 74.99 billion minutes were consumed on NBC, 27.67 billion minutes on NBCSN, 1.68 billion on CNBC and 503 million on USA Network.


“If you could sign up for a 6 percent audience decline over four years, you’d do it in a heartbeat,” said a rival network executive.


Out-of-home boost is not as big as thought.

NBC still was crunching its out-of-home viewing numbers at deadline. But the Games looked to provide about a 3-4 percent lift across all its dayparts. By comparison, NFL games have seen a lift of anywhere between 5 and 9 percent.


“I thought it might be a touch higher,” Lazarus said. “You’re talking about midweek in the winter — a work week — it’s a time when people are home, not necessarily out and about in great numbers. It’s a little higher on the weekends than they were during the week.”

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