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As Olympic Viewership Falls, NBC Thinks of the Bigger Picture | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. Reuters/Ricardo Moraes

In the weeks before the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, NBC officials believed that the prime-time audience for its 17-day event would match or exceed that of the London Games four years earlier. With stars like Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky and Usain Bolt returning and a formidable United States women’s gymnastics team, NBC saw London’s overall viewership of 31 million as an attainable goal.

But so far that figure is looking unreachable. NBC’s performance stumbled early: Viewership for Friday’s opening ceremony fell 35 percent compared with four years ago, followed by a 28 percent tumble in the first day of competition. Although NBC has done better since, the average audience of 28.6 million after five days is down nearly 20 percent from the 35.6 million who were watching the London Games.

And viewership among people ages 18 to 34 has fallen 32 percent.

Normally this would be a cause of great anxiety at NBC, which has carried every Summer Games since 1988 and has $12 billion in deals to show all the Olympics through 2032. The prime-time broadcast on NBC brings in about three-quarters of its Olympic advertising and is counted on to attract hard-to-reach millennials and older viewers and to overwhelm rival networks in prime time.

“The main event on NBC is what we’re most concerned about,” said Billie Gold, the vice president and director of programming research at Amplifi, a division of the ad agency Dentsu Aegis Network, which has numerous clients advertising on NBC’s Rio broadcasts. “That’s where the big dollars are going.”

But NBCUniversal believes it has an answer to where some prime-time viewers went: They are watching the Olympics on two of the media giant’s cable networks, Bravo and NBCSN, and streaming events online, reflecting how consumers have changed their media viewing habits.

On Tuesday night, 33.4 million were watching in prime time on NBC, more than five million fewer than those who watched the comparable night in London. But another 2.3 million were watching on cable and the equivalent of 404,000 were streaming live video and earlier events. The total of 36.1 million was still below the nearly 38.8 million viewers four years ago on NBC in London, when there was no parallel cable viewing and streaming in prime time. NBC calls its combined number the total audience delivery.

The ancillary viewers — admittedly not a huge bounty — are the result of NBC’s pre-Rio planning.
“We consciously went into these Olympics with a strategy to put content across all platforms,” said Mark Lazarus, chairman of the NBC Sports Group. “We committed to stream every event live and put Olympic content in prime time on our cable networks for the first time.”

Lazarus and Alan Wurtzel, the president of research and media development at NBCUniversal, said Wednesday they were surprised about the falloff in viewership on NBC and the unexpectedly good audiences on cable and online. Still, as Wurtzel said, “The Olympics are not immune to the tectonic changes in consumer media behavior.”

NBC’s streaming of all events (except the opening ceremony) has been met by a fan base that is increasingly tethered to their smartphones, tablets and connected televisions and who want to view events when it is convenient for them — not when NBC schedules them.

And putting sports like judo, tennis, soccer, fencing and basketball on cable during prime time represents a new opportunity for viewers who prefer those sports or do not want to see the same core of elaborately produced sports that dominate NBC in prime time, like swimming, diving, gymnastics, beach volleyball and track and field.

In a sense, some of NBC’s viewers are fleeing the prime-time broadcast for sports with less ratings appeal.

“I don’t like the word ‘cannibalization,’” Lazarus said. “But would some watch NBC if we didn’t put the sports on cable? Almost certainly. But they’re going to similar content — to the Olympics, not to entertainment programming, other sports programming or news programming.”

For advertisers and buyers, NBC’s strategy is a sensible reaction to the changing media landscape in which more viewing is taking place away from the living-room television.

Jack Hollis, group vice president of marketing for Toyota Motor Sales in the United States, said the automotive company wanted to reach car buyers wherever they are — and they are not always watching television. “Clearly, I’d like the Olympics to be up in prime time, but I’m not worried,” he said in a telephone interview from Rio. “As long as we pick up lost viewers elsewhere I’m pleased.”

Although NBC’s prime-time broadcast is falling short of expectations — and will almost certainly require the network to offer free commercial time to make up for the lower viewership — it is still giving NBCUniversal, a part of Comcast, what it craves: large, smashing victories over CBS, Fox and ABC.

“We need to keep reminding the world that we still do 30 million people a night,” Lazarus said, “which doesn’t happen very often.”