NBC, criticized for its tape-delayed coverage of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, is going to do it again this winter in Russia for a simple reason: It works.
Comcast Corp. (CMCSA)’s NBC Universal division, which owns U.S. rights to the Sochi 2014 Games, will delay most television coverage while streaming action on the Internet as it happens. That strategy led to record viewership from London, even while some fans berated the network for not broadcasting events live. NBC announced late last month that it already had sold a Winter Olympics-record $800 million worth of advertising for Sochi.
“I can’t create a primetime event live if it’s the middle of the night where the event is taking place,” Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBC Sports Group, said in an interview about the network’s plans for the games that run Feb. 6-23. “There’s no events at four in the morning to do live in Sochi. We have to do it taped in primetime. We have no choice.”
CNN show host Piers Morgan and Time magazine TV critic James Poniewozik were among those to echo social media criticism of NBC’s coverage in 2012.
Andy Donchin, director of media investments for Carat North America, an advertising firm that buys air time during the games, believes the criticism on social media sites about tape-delayed coverage was restricted to a “vocal minority,” while more positive messages helped boost viewership.
“This is a very blatant case of social media driving viewers to the event,” said Donchin, whose company’s clients include General Motor Co. “The events in London speak for themselves. They generated higher ratings and I think all that noise on social media actually pushed people to go and watch.”
The London Games brought record viewership, NBC said, with 219.4 million people tuning in to make it the most-watched television event in U.S. history. The company said it made “a small profit” from London, while the winter games in Vancouver two years earlier were a bust, with the network losing $223 million.
Lazarus, speaking last month at the International Olympic Committee’s annual meeting in Buenos Aires, said criticism of its London coverage was unfair because NBC offered paid live coverage of every event on the Internet.
“Olympics fans are not by and large people who watch sports year-round,” Lazarus said. “It’s everybody. It’s families, it’s parents and children, it’s a multi-generation gathering in front of sets together.”
Among the most eagerly awaited events of the Sochi Games could be skier Lindsey Vonn’s defense of her downhill title. Her gold-medal run in Vancouver was tape delayed, and this time her race will take place at 2 a.m. New York time.
Vonn, 28, who has been dating golfer Tiger Woods, is returning from a serious knee injury at the end of last season.
“How we take what went on during the day and package it with interesting stories that let people connect with the athletes is a recipe for us that leads to huge prime-time viewership even in a non-live scenario,” Lazarus said.
NBC’s contract with the IOC is the sports organization’s biggest, representing about half of its total global television revenue. The U.S. broadcaster signed a contract in 2011 that runs through the 2020 Games in Tokyo and is worth $4.38 billion, according to the IOC.
“It is a good business for us,” Lazarus said. “We only invest what we believe we can get a good return for our shareholders on, and the Olympics have proven to be that over the years and will continue to be that.”
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