Olympics on TV: A dying breed

So according to this article on Bloomberg, Olympics viewership is down 17%, and 25% in the coveted 18-49 demographic. NBC has had to give free commercial time to some sponsors to fulfill viewership promises. It’s not good. To sum up the article’s argument for why the Olympics are down in viewership: Millennials have other things to do.

Okay. That’s fair. That starts to get to the heart of the issue, but I don’t think it captures the extent to which the televised media environment is changing, not just for millennials, but for Gen X and even baby boomers (there aren’t any 49-year-old millennials just yet).

The article acknowledges that NBC pushed more content to digital channels than ever before. That was the right move. Of course, some suggest this was the wrong move, as it saturated viewership options and pulled viewers from the live broadcast. In a sense, this was true. The answer, then, would be to limit online content to drive people to the live broadcast. In my humble opinion, this is the wrong move.

NBC’s coverage, which began with the Opening Ceremony, started on the wrong foot, with way too many commercials and tape delays that made for incredibly confusing social media feeds. Their primetime footage wasn’t much better. Watching the Olympics on the west coast, I was seeing social media reactions from friends on the east coast four hours earlier, and reactions to real-time events even earlier than that.

News travels in real time. People are building a mental queue of moments they would like to see during the day, because the results are available as soon as the event happens, typically broadcast through social media. Why would I tune into Simone Biles’s gold medal run on NBC, when a) I already know she won and b) I can watch the highlights on YouTube later on?

“But people want to experience things live!” I agree. But NBC isn’t offering a live experience. They’re offering tape delay. The problem with the Olympics is “live” doesn’t happen when viewership is most valuable.

It’s a problem. It’s a problem for advertisers and a problem for broadcast networks. Given this year’s results, Olympic coverage is going to be a lot cheaper next time. Perhaps the solution is to do away with the four hour evening broadcast block entirely, and instead focus on a shorter, highlight-style program in the evenings, with full event coverage and highlight clips made available instantly online as they happen. That way, people can choose what they watch when they want to watch it, and its availability will be concurrent with our real-time media environment. You can still sell ads for online coverage.

Whatever happens, NBC has four years to think about it. However, that is also four more years of digital evolution.


Photo Credit: Agencia Brazil link


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