By almost every measure, NBC had a successful Winter Olympics. Its average prime-time viewership — 21.4 million people — was less than for the mostly live coverage from Vancouver four years ago, but up 6% over the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, which were also on tape delay.
More remarkably, NBC won every night of the 2014 Olympics compared to 14 of 17 in 2010 and eight of 17 in Turin. NBC also beat the combined broadcast competition (ABC, CBS and Fox) by 45% in viewership.
Of course, prime-time broadcast doesn’t tell the whole story, as NBC has been at pains to point out. Millions more watched events at various times throughout the day on NBC Sports Network, USA Network, CNBC and MSNBC. And then there were the additional millions who watched on computers, tablets and smartphones.
Perhaps what’s most surprising about NBC’s achievement is that with all the prime-time events seen on a tape-delayed basis, the winners could easily have been known hours before the broadcast. There was a time within the living memory of many readers when NBC (and ABC before them) tried to keep Olympics results under wraps. Sometimes news of very high profile contests, such as the Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding skate-off of 1994, would filter back through word of mouth, but generally viewers who sat down to watch the Games in the pre-Internet era had no idea who the winners and losers were.
But in today’s age of instant communication and social media overload, there’s no way to keep the winners secret. Brian Williams himself announced the results during “The NBC Nightly News.” And yet people still watched the prime-time broadcast in droves.
This is not the first time that anxieties about the impact of TV-related technology have been overblown. Remember the fear that TiVo and DVRs would demolish ad-supported TV by letting everyone fast-forward through the commercials? Turns out DVRs lead to more viewing, and fast-forwarding is offset by the number of new viewers who actually watch the ads. Remember how Internet streaming was going to undercut traditional television? Turns out streaming helps build interest in TV programs, leading to record viewing levels.
It now seems clear that social media chatter about winners and losers is no threat to the Olympics. In fact, the role of social media in general, especially Twitter, seems vastly overblown. Only 10% to 15% of Americans even have Twitter accounts, and only a percentage of them are active at any one time, so the amount of spoiling that can take place on Twitter is pretty small.
The bigger threat from spoiling comes from traditional news organizations like The New York Times or CNN, which send out news alerts to subscribers. For every one Olympics result I saw on Twitter, I received about 20 email notifications from the various news outlets I follow. Yet everyone wants to talk about the impact of social media, while no one wants to discuss the impact of the boring old New York Times.
Spoilers have limited impact on Olympic viewing anyway, because the Games are not really a sporting event. They’re produced by NBC Sports and feature physical contests with winners and losers — but, except for hockey, don’t offer the essence of a sports broadcast. And how do we know that? Because the audience is predominantly female. The Olympics has turned into the best-produced, most expensive reality show in the history of television. With all its sob stories, heroes and villains, it almost doesn’t really matter who wins, or whether the results are known ahead of time.
The other thing that doesn’t seem to have undercut Olympic TV viewing is Internet streaming. As NBC will be happy to tell you, the Olympics were a multiplatform effort — but I’m guessing the amount of streaming, like the amount of social media, is somewhat exaggerated. Even the results for big-ticket events — the men’s hockey semifinal between the U.S. and Canada, which was said to have been streamed by 2.1 million viewers — were not that impressive.
Those 2.1 million streamers should not be equated to 2.1 million TV viewers as measured by Nielsen. Nielsen produces an average audience metric (that is, the average number of people watching at any one time). To get an equivalent Nielsen number for the game, you’d have to take the 65 million streamed minutes and divide by the length of the event (say, 90 minutes); this would produce an average audience of 722,000, which is not bad for a midday TV show, but only a fraction of the prime-time broadcast.
Another indication of the minimal impact of the digital offerings is their level of ad support. NBC Sports sold just $50 million in digital ads for the Sochi Olympics, far below the $800 million in national TV ad sales for the Games. And it wouldn’t surprise me if it took some creative accounting to get the total as high as $50 million.
In any event, despite all the technological advances, we still largely experience the Olympics the same way we have for generations: watching a highly curated version on the TV set. This is good news for NBC as we head to the 2016 Summer Games in Rio.