Was anybody watching the Olympics?
Story by Chris Graham
If you believe the hype, the Olympics are dead and buried as a valuable entertainment property.
“The press has been a little hyperbolic about this. To read the headlines during the Olympics, it seemed like they were less covering the Games and more covering the ratings. ‘NBC: On a downhill slide.’ ‘NBC killed in Torino.’ It seemed that the biggest story coming out of these Games was that the ratings were tanking,” said Bob Thompson, the director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.
But the reality is that NBC swept to ratings gold with its presentation of the Olympics – even if the Nielsens showed a few chips in the medal in the form of Fox’s “American Idol” and “Skating with Celebrities” and ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” and “Grey’s Anatomy.”
“This year was interesting because a lot of the other networks decided to run very strong shows against the Olympics – so they almost went directly at NBC to sort of attack the programming by scheduling a lot of very colorful things right up next to it,” said Tim Calkins, a professor of marketing in the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
The reason that Fox and ABC went on the attack is probably obvious.
“They know that NBC has an Olympic contract signed that covers them through the Summer Olympics coming up and what have you. I think they deliberately went at it and tried to drive down the Olympic ratings in an effort to hurt NBC,” Calkins told The Augusta Free Press.
That NBC did as well as it did in the ratings, then – winning each of the three weeks that the Games in Torino, Italy, were featured – says a lot, perhaps, about the staying power of the Olympics.
“The Olympics continue to be a big event. It is still an important venue for advertisers, certainly,” Calkins said. “From a media perspective, and an advertising perspective, the Olympics are a unique venue – because they’re an event that people like to associate with, from a sponsorship perspective, from an imagery perspective, from a worldly outlook perspective. So there are things that draw advertisers to the Olympics. It will still be a compelling media venue.”
That is certainly the perspective of NBC Universal – which reported last week that it expects that it will take in a profit of between $60 million and $70 million from the Torino Games on revenues of $900 million.
Executives at two Virginia-based NBC affiliates – WVIR-NBC29 in Charlottesville and WWBT-NBC12 in Richmond – themselves noted positive revenue flows associated with the Olympics.
“The Games were very successful for us from an advertising standpoint. We met all of our financial goals, and our advertisers are happy,” WWBT general manager Don Richards told the AFP.
“Let’s just put it this way – I would much rather have the Olympics than not,” WVIR general manager Harold Wright told the AFP.
The ratings and revenue successes almost didn’t materialize, though – NBC had promised its Olympics advertisers a 12 to 14 national rating, and barely met that with a 12.2 average for the 17 days of prime-time broadcasts, according to Nielsen Media Research.
And then factor in that “American Idol” pushed Fox to a surprise victory in the coveted 18-49 demographic last week – and the questions about the future appeal to advertisers abound.
“NBC Universal was counting on several factors that never came through for them. Number one is they were counting on some stars shining, and they didn’t get that. Michelle Kwan dropped out, Bode Miller doesn’t do anything – and so they had no star power to center their coverage around,” said Douglas Gomery, a professor of media economics at the University of Maryland.
“It was an Olympics without a real storyline – and it was an Olympics without real star power. And so unlike a scripted program, they really couldn’t do anything about it,” Gomery told the AFP.
“They’ll learn from this,” Gomery said. “One, they’ll try harder and tweak what I call the Roone Arledge up-close-and-personal business. Roone Arledge developed that in the 1964 and 1968 Olympics to kind of personalize the Olympics to make stars and make stories out of it. I don’t know what they will do – but they’re going to have to figure out a way to figure who they think the stars are going to be, and then try to work out some prearranged storylines so that it gives the viewer a reason to watch.
“The problem with sports coverage is that you can’t predict if the game will be close, or if it will be a runaway. If it’s a runaway, then everybody tunes out. You can’t predict what will happen,” Gomery said.
Nor can one predict what will happen with regard to the effects of time-zone differences on the size of the viewing audience in the States – which was an issue with the Torino Games and will be again when the Summer Olympics moves to Beijing in 2008.
“The issues with tape delay has always been a problem – because you’re not seeing these things as they happen, you’re seeing them several hours later,” Thompson told the AFP.
“That was more of a problem this year than it’s ever been before because more and more people are hooked up to the Internet and have 24-hour cable and the rest of it,” Thompson said. “In 1972, the Munich Games were played in prime time on a tape delay, but very likely you got to prime time and had not heard what had happened that day. There was no 24-hour cable to pop onto. There was no Internet to see this stuff in. Facts from the Olympics had a shelf life long enough that they weren’t revealed until prime time – and we, for all intents and purposes, thought that we were watching that stuff live.
“Now, even if you’re not looking for the information – if you’re looking for it, it’s everywhere – but even if you’re not, you log on to your e-mail, and there it is, hitting you in the face. It’s very difficult to wait until prime time to see this stuff, because it’s all over the place. That was a problem as well, and we should have seen that coming,” Thompson said.
Thompson, for one, is interested in seeing how NBC responds to the challenges that it is facing with regard to its presentation of the Olympics.
“What’s going to be very interesting in ’08 is how they adapt using the lessons that they learned from this one with regard to not only these problems, but also something else, which was actually a bright spot – their coverage of the Olympics through nontraditional media was actually very encouraging. They got a lot of Web-site hits. There were a lot of people consuming these Olympics one way or the other over the Internet and on high-definition television,” Thompson said.
“This was clearly an Olympics that says that the broadcast era, the old days when the Olympics were pretty much guaranteed to plow over the competition and draw these huge audiences, that Olympics of the broadcast era is really over,” Thompson said. “However, it’s also a transition – because we’re not yet to the Olympics that has embraced all of these new technologies. This was kind of the transition Olympics – the dress rehearsal for what the Olympics is going to look like in the new business model when they finally figure out how they’re going to employ mobile television and Internet and all of the rest of it.”
It wasn’t a bad dress rehearsal at all, from Richards’ perspective.
“Despite the prevailing media driven opinion that the Olympics were a ‘disappointment’ in terms of total viewing, compared to 2002 Salt Lake City, we were very happy with the viewing levels it brought to our station,” Richards said.
“The Torino Olympics brought many hours of high ratings and spectacle to our viewers that are unique to this programming. That is why the Olympics do a particularly good job in attracting the hard-to-reach affluent consumers. We can’t wait for the 2008 Summer Olympics,” Richards said.