NBC is Stuck in 20th Century with Olympics Coverage, Faces Uncertain Future


NBC’s Olympics extravaganza is over. The coverage resembled an investor trying to flip a $20 million home after the market tanked. The Olympics may not be an event fit for television’s future, at least at the steep price NBC is paying for it.

Rio 2016 had everything going for it, for television. This was the best time zone for the Summer Games since 1996. All the major swimming and track and field finals, with some NBC rank pulling, were live in prime time. NBC had Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt, perhaps the two greatest Olympians ever, each spearheading multiple nights of programming. Lesser known Americans dominated the medal count. It was hard to ask for more.

The results were not great. Standard TV ratings were down significantly from 2012. Though closing ceremony ended on a particularly sour note. Though, ratings still dwarfed all competition. NBC was basically televising to an audience equivalent to one watching a college football playoff game, every night. Even with that large audience, NBC had to give “make goods” to advertisers for missed ratings targets.

Those results don’t bode well for the future.

Tape delaying is a conundrum with no clear solution. NBC packaging highlights amidst narrative packages can be irksome. It’s also far and away the best viewer experience for most people. Even for sports fans, watching many of these events straight through in real time is monotonous.

The trouble is that concept is not really tenable in 2016. Avoiding results beforehand is nearly impossible. NBC can’t shut down other news outlets. One could not log into Facebook without having results trumpeted at you, by Facebook.

NBC is not the BBC,  supplemented by license fees. It has to optimize revenue, which means stringing viewers along as far as possible with prime content. While the women’s gymnastics team was one of the great American stories in Rio, people (especially children) unable to stay up past 11:00pm missed almost of all it.

This was a near ideal time zone for American audiences. Four years ago, NBC opted not to show the men’s 100m final live in the late afternoon to save it for the prime time block. How does that decision play in 2020?

Cord-cutting will be a continued problem. People cutting the cord are casual viewers (of which the Olympic audience is largely comprised) and millennials (the key demographic for advertisers). These people aren’t fleeing to digital viewing (which they don’t have access to as non cable subscribers). They just aren’t watching. Touting Snapchat engagement feels very “dad trying to wear skinny jeans.”

The Olympics feels like an event optimized for the last era of cable television. It was having similar problems adjusting to modernity in 2000. That’s a problem for NBC, which is paying enormous sums for the Olympics now ($4.38 billion deal through 2020) and made an even greater investment on its resonance in the future, a further $7.75 billion, to extend the rights through 2032.

Not being able to recast the Olympics for millennials is worrisome, when NBC is committed long term to selling the Olympics to millennials’ children.

NBC needs the Olympics to work. Consequently, NBC converted to relentless shill mode across all programming. NBC News led with the Olympics over hard news. The Today Show and Access Hollywood essentially merged with the event coverage.

Negative Olympic stories were soft-pedaled. The top European Olympic official being arrested as part of a ticketing scam was barely mentioned, if at all. Ditto for the empty seats. NBC did go in hard on the PED angle, except when Americans Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay were running. That’s before we get into the myriad of other issues that made Rio a terrible choice to host a major athletics tournament.

Other outlets covered the Olympics. NBC promoted the bejesus out of it.

NBC may have paid for a lavish casual audience tentpole every couple years in a marketplace that will favor invested viewers willing to pay a la carte every month.

The Olympics are an imperfect fit now. We’re only on the precipice of a sea change. The cable model is on its last legs. It’s not clear what the future will look like or whether Internet streaming will be able to replace the revenue generated from a traditional TV audience. The event feels far more like its butting against the future, than being at the forefront of it.