The bad news is: The ratings for these Rio de Janeiro Olympics are lower than the numbers NBC scored four summers ago in London.
The good news, at least according to NBC, is that this summer’s Olympics will be NBC’s “most economically successful Games in history.” That was the word from NBC Sports Group Chairman Mark Lazarus, who gave a telephone news conference a few days ago.
So how can both of these pieces of news be true?
Traditionally, TV was easy. At the risk of oversimplifying the situation, the equation that underpinned it all was this: The more viewers you pulled in (i.e., the higher your ratings), the more money you made.
So if the ratings NBC expected (and in the process guaranteed or promised to advertisers) don’t materialize, the network would supposedly earn less instead of seeing financial results that make the Rio Games the “most successful” ever for NBC (assuming the statement is true).
But as we all know, TV today is not so simple. Take this morning’s story about NBC’s Olympics ratings in The Wall Street Journal. The headline is "NBC Olympics Ratings Fall Short." The story then goes on to report on the average viewership for NBC’s nightly coverage of the Games through this past Saturday night.
According to the story, NBC is averaging 27.9 million viewers a night, down 15.5% from the 33 million the network averaged nightly for the London Games in 2012. The decline is even bigger when compared to the 34.2 million who tuned in on average every night during the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008.
The decline is somewhat surprising, given the star power of some of the U.S. Olympic stars who have been winning gold medals all over the place such as swimmer Michael Phelps and gymnast Simone Biles.
The WSJ dutifully reports that advertisers spent $1.2 billion for commercials during the 17 days of these Rio Olympics (in which we are now in Week Two). The Journal story and others report that scatter inventory during the Games has sold briskly at high prices, adding $30 million to NBC’s Olympic coffers and perhaps giving weight to NBC’s claim about the financial success of the Rio Games.
“Of particular concern [to NBC] is a roughly 30% drop among viewers age 18-34,” the WSJ reports.
Interpreting this drop-off is relatively easy: This age group has shorter attention spans, and tends to watch such a great variety of television and video content that they don’t get hooked on the Olympics. By contrast, those of us of a certain age can remember when the quadrennial Olympics were the biggest thing on TV and we watched every minute of them.
No doubt there are still many people who get hooked on the Olympics. And it should also be noted that the 27.9 million viewers NBC is averaging every night is a very high number for network prime time -- unheard-of these days for regular shows.
Simply put (again with the simplifications), this means NBC sold commercial time at astronomical prices, and even if it has to give some money back (or give away some inventory) over missed audience guarantees (if they even made them), it’s still possible for the company to finish in the black for these Games (as along as the revenue exceeds the great costs of obtaining the rights to the Olympics and then producing 17 days of telecasts).
The WSJ story goes into less detail about the ratings results and financial picture for all of the other platforms – both streaming and cable -- that are such an important part of these kinds of telecasts today. And of course, this is the area of the TV biz where the conversation over research -- i.e., audience measurement that can take all platforms into account -- comes in.
If and when final numbers are produced that encompass all the platforms, it’s likely that here too, NBC will have met most of its goals. The most important of these would seem to be managing the migration of those 18- to-34-year-olds who don’t have the network-television habit and are drawn to the other platforms, particularly the mobile ones.
In the end, if there has been a drop-off in “traditional” viewership on the NBC broadcast network and there’s a comparable increase in viewership on all the other platforms on which NBC is providing Olympics coverage, then there really isn’t a net loss in viewership at all, is there?
Meanwhile, my own observation at times is that the "traditional" way of covering Olympics on TV should be rethought somewhat. For example, this past Saturday afternoon, I watched a thrilling event -- one of the heats in the 3,000-meter women’s steeplechase, which combines running and jumping. It was incredible.
I might have remained hooked on the Olympics that afternoon if not for a human-interest feature that was aired soon after about a plucky penguin named Dindin who enjoys a loving relationship with a Brazilian man who lives 90 miles south of Rio de Janeiro. You look at this stuff and you just wonder how or why this penguin piece made it into the rotation.