Does NBC’s Olympic Coverage Deserve the Gold?

Now that the major controversies surrounding NBC’s coverage of the Olympics are old news – including the network’s decision to tape delay the opening ceremonies and many of the events – it’s a good time to look at who won and who lost during the airing of the games, what was done well and what could have been done better.

Wharton marketing professor Eric Bradlow, for example, suggests that because “we are in the super-information age, people want to see events when they happen.” He cites recent research showing that “even if you don’t know the outcome, but you know that others do … you enjoy it a lot less. I think this is what [happened] with NBC’s coverage.” Given that situation, NBC should consider reporting those outcomes “instead of pretending they are highly uncertain, and then give a more detailed analysis of what we saw.”

Another possibility is “segmentation. NBC could have two versions, one for people who have seen [the event] already, and another for those who have not.” He acknowledges this approach would increase the costs of coverage, but says it would “dramatically increase reach as well.”

Bradlow also notes the “over-saturation effects” of the coverage, starting with the “Today” show in the morning “where it’s all Olympics. I think it’s good that NBC has wisely become synonymous with the Olympics, but it’s almost too much.”

As for the sponsors, “I can’t remember one major [sponsor] from the Olympics other than Visa,” he notes. “Maybe there are others, but the length of the event leads to the diffusion of the message. This is very different than the Super Bowl.”

Scott Rosner, Wharton practice professor of legal studies and business ethics and associate director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative, gives NBC credit for “not trying to reinvent the wheel” with their coverage. “It’s not a business in which you take a lot of risks, especially if you’re NBC and this is one of the few things you have going for you.” In addition, Rosner says, “you can’t argue with the ratings,” which have been high.

He points out that “there are very few things people congregate around in mass numbers, and most of those happen to be live sporting events.” What’s interesting about the Olympics is that “they aren’t being consumed in real time, but we are still watching the coverage. It’s more for the storylines than for the results.” This goes back to why this strategy works for NBC, Rosner says. “Think about what they are building their nights of programming around: swimming, beach volleyball, track and field – sports we would never care about if it weren’t the Olympics. Normally these sports get terrible ratings. But there is this sense of national pride. If there is one thing about Olympians, they have amazing stories. And NBC tells those stories well. Even if we know how [an event] ends, we want to know the means. That gives sports a competitive advantage over other industries: It is unscripted drama, and it is compelling television.”

But Rosner also suggests that in the storytelling arena, the network could have done an even better job. “They focused on the handful of athletes they thought would be a success,” even though “there were so many other unbelievable storylines.” So while it was good that the women’s soccer team got lots of attention, “the women’s basketball team didn’t, nor did the women’s water polo team.”

As for the initial criticism raging around Twitter over the tape delays, “my sense is that those criticisms subsided,” Rosner says. “The reality is that when you are NBC and you are paying billions for the rights to broadcast the games, you need to be able to monetize it. It’s a business. It was a business before Comcast [owner of NBC], and it’s a business now. Doing it in real time doesn’t allow you to monetize it because you aren’t in prime time. Who is going to watch?”

As for the sponsors, Rosner feels they have generally gotten their money’s worth, although “you will start to see some turnover if the prices keep going up…. The IOC [International Olympic Committee] is already going after Google and Facebook to be sponsors of” the games in Soshi, Russia, in 2014 and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2016.

Wharton marketing professor David Reibstein was in China for the first week of the Olympics. “Almost all I saw were events that China had won,” he says. “It gave me the impression that China had a huge lead in medals. I knew that wasn’t totally the case and figured the Chinese government was manipulating the coverage to give that impression and to build pride in the country. Then I returned for the second week to the U.S., and it was just the same — almost all the coverage this time was of the U.S. winning. I take it from this that … people like to see their country doing well, and the networks naturally cover what the people want to see. China watches every badminton and ping pong match and we watch track and field, volleyball and basketball.”

Reibstein also notes the positive influence social media had on the events. “Social media let the audience hear more from the athletes and ‘humanize’ them. Also, others were able to engage their friends on the events they liked. I have no doubt this was a big enhancement to the games.”

Looking ahead, Rosner suggests that NBC will have an easier time broadcasting the games in Rio because the time difference with New York is only one hour. It will be much harder in Soshi in two years, and in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018. Already, he says, “the larger issue with the Olympics is the way people are changing how they consume TV and media in general. By 2018, who knows what will be happening?”

 

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