Watching The Olympics

Well, well, well.  It looks like the London Olympics might end up demonstrating -- in a way that all the detailed viewing reports from TV researchers never seem to make clear -- that people still like to watch a lot of TV.

It wasn’t supposed to work out this way.  This was going to be the year when social media and Internet streaming finally dealt a death blow to the old way of watching the Games. Initially dubbed the “iPad Olympics” because of NBC’s commitment to stream almost every event live, many commentators predicted that the prime-time broadcast -- delivered via time delay, well after the results were made available by other media -- would be a ratings bust

Those expectations betrayed a misunderstanding of what the Olympics actually are.  Because the Games involve physical contests, TV pundits have treated it as a sporting event and assumed that viewers wouldn’t tune in if they knew the winners ahead of time.  But far from being “sports,” the Olympics are actually the world’s biggest reality show, one in which contestants compete using their athletic prowess instead of their ability to sing, dance, bake a cake, manipulate the emotions of others or drink themselves to oblivion.



One way to tell whether a broadcast is a real sporting event is to check gender breakdowns of the audience. A real sports broadcast – even one featuring female participants, such as women’s tennis and soccer – almost always skews male. But most Olympics events, like most reality TV, have a majority of female viewers.

Also, real sports have fans.  Olympics viewers are not “fans” in any real sense of the word. A fan is someone who follows a sport throughout the year and already knows the back story to the contest.  By contrast, to get viewers to care who wins the weight-lifting, pole vaulting or fencing events, NBC must, in classic reality TV fashion, package the event with personal interest videos and sob stories.  

In other words, because this isn’t a classic sporting event, making some winners known ahead of time hasn’t necessarily killed interest in the primetime broadcast. In fact, it now seems apparent that dribbling out news about American gold medal winners throughout the day actually increases interest in the Games, because what American viewers want to watch more than anything else is other Americans winning gold medals.

At one time we thought NBC would benefit from having the 2016 Games in Rio, which is in an American time zone and would minimize the need for tape delays.  But now it appears that might be a problem, because when you broadcast live you won’t necessarily be guaranteeing your audience American medals.  Rio will be an interesting test case on showing whether knowing the results ahead of time helps or hurts the ratings.

Some other thoughts about the Olympics:

  • As is usually the case, the role of social media has been vastly overstated. Only about a third of Americans actively use Twitter (and that’s probably a generous estimate) yet because reporters, critics and media commentators are tweeting all day long, they think it’s the most important communications channel in the world.  My own personal experience is that in-day news about gold medal winners comes via more traditional media.  The ranking of the media that have informed me about Olympic results prior to the prime-time broadcasts is: 1) radio, 2) email blasts from The New York Times, 3) The Drudge Report/The Huffington Post, 4) NBC’s own news broadcasts, and finally, 5) Facebook/Twitter.


  • I’m sure the metrics on the number of people streaming Olympics events are accurate as far as they go, but I don’t know how meaningful they are.  Remember that a TV rating is the average number of people in the audience at any moment during the broadcast.  So when we say that 30 million people watched the Olympics, that means that at any given moment 30 million people were tuned in.  To say that there were 30 million streams is an entirely different matter. One stream could be a user watching for one minute or it could be that same viewer watching for four hours.  Four streams could also be the same person logging in four times if he was kicked off by buffering. And of course, if you are the kind of person who routinely deletes your cookies, you become a unique user every time you log in.


  • After the scary regimentation and synchronization of the Beijing Olympics, I appreciated the eccentricity, humor and individuality of the James Bond/Mary Poppins/Mr. Bean/National Health Service Opening Ceremony.  But I was annoyed by the announcers’ repeated claim that a billion people were watching. Really? And how did they derive that number?  Only about 13% of the U.S. population (or 40 million people) tuned in.  One billion people represents 14% of the world’s population, so to reach a billion viewers, the rest of the world (including such low-viewing regions as India, Africa, and South America) would have needed to watch more compulsively than the U.S. Before I believe any global numbers I’ll have to see a country-by-country breakdown. (For a more detailed discussion, see this piece on

In any event, now that we’re in the home stretch, it’s probably safe to congratulate NBC on a successful Olympics.  Thanks to them, we’ve relearned the lesson that TV is not going away anytime soon -- and that although the news media keeps focusing on the Internet, mobile, social and other forms of digital media, what people really want to do is sit on the couch, grab the clicker and see what’s on the tube.

3 comments about "Watching The Olympics".
Check to receive email when comments are posted.
  1. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, August 7, 2012 at 1:38 p.m.

    If everything is just wonderful with conventional TV, then we should expect to see stations trading briskly at high multiples. If the broadcast networks are so healthy, we should expect their audience shares to be growing. But we see neither, because conventional TV is growing less relevant each season, with the ONLY exception when a big event comes along, like the Olympics. Otherwise, broadcast TV is an ailing anachronism.

  2. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC, August 7, 2012 at 7:26 p.m.

    For the writer of this blog to call the Olympics "the world’s biggest reality show" is to exhibit an inadequate understanding of human nature, sport and television. This is not one of those "big thoughts on the future of the small screen" as promised, but rather such a characterization is just "reductio ad absurdum."

    How unfortunate.

    Sadly, the first commentator has seen fit to attempt one-upmanship by twisting the discussion and engaging in the "straw man" logical fallacy.

    How unfair.

    Notwithstanding the simplistic characterization of the Olympics, Mr. Holmes offers a number of valuable observations on audience measurement and social media -- to mention but two important topics. He's convinced me that these Games offer a teachable moment for media, marketing and research.

    How exciting.

  3. Troy Turner from Fans United Against ABC, August 11, 2012 at 3:53 p.m.

    While I agree with the majority of Holmes' summation, it has been widely reported that people have taken to Facebook and Twitter to complain about not seeing events live. And to those people I say: Don't look then! There is very little that can be done about that, unless you want every Olympiad to take place in the Americas. While Rio will certainly be North American TV-friendly, I'm not sure whether it's in a timezone that North Americans are used to, so 2016 will be the true social-media test.

Next story loading loading..