When it comes to benchmarking stuff, nothing holds a candle to the quadrennial sports-apooloza we call the Summer Olympics. After 3 years, 11 months and 13 days of not giving a crap about sports like team pursuit cycling or half heavyweight judo, we suddenly get into fist fights over 3 one hundredths of a second, or an unawarded Yuko.
But it’s not just sports that are thrown into comparative focus by the Olympic games. It also provides a chance to take a snapshot of media consumption trends. The Olympics is probably the biggest show on earth. With the possible exception of the World Cup, it’s the time when the highest number of people on the planet are all watching the same thing at the same time. This makes it advertising nirvana.
Or it should.
Over the past few Olympics, the way we watch various events has been changing because of the nature of the Games themselves. There are 306 separate events in 35 recognized sports that are spread over 16 days of competition. The Olympics play to a global audience, which means that coverage has to span 24 time zones. At any given time, on any given day, there could be six or seven events running simultaneously. In fact, as I’m writing this, diving, volleyball, men’s omnium cycling, Greco-Roman wresting, badminton, field hockey and boxing are all happening at the same time.
This creates a challenge for network TV coverage. The Olympics are hardly a one-size-fits-all spectacle. So, if you’re NBC and you’ve shelled out 1.6 billion dollars to provide coverage, you have a dilemma: How do you assemble the largest possible audience to show all those really expensive ads to? How do you keep all those advertisers happy?
NBC’s answer, it seems, is to repackage the Olympics as a scripted mini-series. It means throttling down real-time streaming or live broadcast coverage on some of the big events so these can be assembled into packaged stories during its prime-time coverage.
NBC’s chief marketing officer, John Miller, was recently quoted as saying, “The people who watch the Olympics are not particularly sports fans. More women watch the 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.”
So, how is this working out for NBC? Not so well, as it turns out.
Ratings are down, with NBC posting the lowest prime-time numbers for the Olympics since 1992. The network has come under heavy fire for what is quite possibly the worst Olympic coverage in the history of the games. Let’s ignore for a moment the network's myopic focus on U.S. contestants and a handful of superstars like Usain Bolt (which may not be irritating unless you’re a international viewer like myself). NBC's heavy-handed attempt to control and script the fragmented and emergent drama of any Olympic games has stumbled out of the blocks and fallen flat on its face.
I would categorize this as a “RTU/WTF” The first three letters stand for “Research tells us.” I think you can figure out the last three. I’m sure NBC did its research to figure out what the audience really wanted in Olympics game coverage. I’m positive there was a focus group somewhere that told the network what its strategists wanted to hear: “Screw real-time results. What we really want is for you to tell us -- with swelling music, extreme close-ups and completely irrelevant vignettes -- the human drama that lies behind the medals.” And, in the collective minds of NBC executives, they quickly added, “…with a zillion commercial breaks and sponsorship messages.”
But it appears that this isn’t what we want. It’s not even close. We want to see the sports we’re interested in, on our device of choice and at the time that best suits us.
This, in a nutshell, is the disruption that is broadsiding the advertising industry at full ramming speed. It was exactly what I was talking about in my last column.
NBC may have been able to play its game when it was our only source of information and we were held captive by this scarcity. But over the past three Olympic games, starting in Athens in 2004, technology has essentially erased that scarcity.
The reality no longer fits NBC’s strategy. Coverage of the Olympics is now a multichannel affair. What we’re looking for is a way to filter the coverage based on what is most interesting to us, not to be spoon-fed the coverage that NBC feels has the highest revenue potential.
It’s a different world, NBC. If you’re planning to compete in Tokyo, you’d better change your game plan, because you’re still playing like it’s 1996.