Low ratings suggest that NBC’s Olympic formula that viewers will continue to watch hours-old events in prime time may have run its course.
Inside sports business
A mounting, annoyed consensus about NBC’s coverage of the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro is that it isn’t quite ready for prime time.
Which is somewhat ironic, given how the network’s Olympic focus has long been built around prime-time viewing slots and involves the tried, and largely proven, formula of offering viewers prerecorded, stylishly packaged footage. But those recorded segments and the delayed broadcasts of key events have come under fire the first week in Rio, perhaps because of that city’s Western Hemisphere location.
After all, it was one thing for NBC to eschew live coverage in 2012, when events were going on half a day away in London. But the fact Rio sits just an hour ahead of the Eastern time zone might be frustrating viewers wondering why they must wait until nightfall to watch key competitions from that afternoon.
The shortcomings of NBC’s approach are particularly evident in Seattle, where viewers can switch to CBC affiliate CBUT in Vancouver. CBC offers more live Olympic event coverage throughout the day, with packaged features leaning on journalistic content as opposed to NBC’s violin-themed profiles of mainly American athletes hugging their children.
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Where NBC’s approach seems off in 2016 is that it contradicts everything else American TV networks are doing nowadays with major sports. We’ve watched valuations of NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL teams skyrocket due to national and regional TV contracts.
The reason billions are being dished out on these leagues, the story goes, is sports represent the last bastion of programming advertisers still pay a premium for. We’ve been told fans want to watch games while they are happening live and won’t record them and skim through commercials.
NBC’s approach would be like waiting until 8 p.m. to broadcast a Seahawks game against the New England Patriots that happened at 1 p.m. Then, showing only select snippets from each quarter, interspersed with soft features of Russell Wilson and Ciara and Tom Brady and Gisele walking hand-in-hand down a beach with Mozart playing in the background.
Doubt many NFL fans would put up with that.
And yet, this is what NBC serves up every two years at the Summer and Winter Games. John Miller, NBC’s Olympics chief marketing officer, tipped the network’s hand a month ago in telling reporters the Olympics aren’t like the usual sports contests Americans watch.
“The people who watch the Olympics are not particularly sports fans,” Miller said. “More women watch the (Olympic) Games than men, and for the women, they’re less interested in the result and more interested in the journey. It’s sort of like the ultimate reality show and miniseries wrapped into one.’’
That might be true. And yet, the CBC approach seems to suggest otherwise — that it feels viewers still want to watch elite competitors live.
To be fair, the CBC, like the BBC in England, gets a heavy dose of taxpayer funding. And though the CBC’s executives are still expected not to lose gallons of money, the stakes in Canada are a tad lesser than for an all-private NBC trying to recoup nearly $1.3 billion spent on rights to the Rio Games.
It’s easier for Canada’s network to have live coverage, a focus on athletes from all nations and often superior journalism that goes beyond family schmaltz when there’s a taxpayer safety net covering any viewership shortfall. Not so for NBC, where getting it right and maximizing ad dollars might mean the difference between network executives keeping or losing their jobs.
That said, early low ratings for NBC — down 8.6 percent from 2012 in London the first five days of competition — suggest the network might have overestimated viewer tolerance for pre-packaged coverage. After all, plenty has changed technology-wise since NBC first deployed its strategy at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.
Michael Rapkoch, who runs a Texas-based sports valuation firm, says the notion everybody wants to watch the Olympics in prime time no longer holds up, considering how people now use smartphones to access results and stream video in real time.
“I don’t believe there is a prime time anymore,” Rapkoch said. “People will watch whenever and wherever if Michael Phelps is swimming. They’re going to find a way to watch it. Because really, it’s what? A minute or two long? You’re going to find a way. I’ve got the app on my phone, and I’ve been watching on my phone.’’
Rapkoch says the anticipation of not knowing who will win a sports event compels viewers to watch. That gets lost, he added, when fans know the results much earlier in the day via text alerts or 24/7 cable-sports networks announcing winners as quickly as possible.
“So, I think that (prime time) thought is a little dated,’’ he said. “It doesn’t match today’s technology.’’
Indeed, even viewers managing not to hear race results before tuning in NBC’s coverage probably already suspect what the outcomes will be. Most have figured out that if NBC shows a pre-recorded race in its coveted prime time slot, it’s usually the American who wins.
There’s probably a happy medium someplace. One that can see NBC still make a tidy profit while not turning live sports into scripted reality TV.
After all, even the best TV shows must keep up with the times, or viewers tune out. And NBC’s early returns and accompanying low ratings thus far suggest an Olympic formula that’s worked very well in the past might finally have run its course.