My most vivid memory of the Olympics is the 2006 ladies' figure skating finals when Japanese competitor Shizuka Arakawa beat out US champion Sasha Cohen to claim gold. I recall this being one of the major disappointments in my young life not only because I was rooting for gold medal hopeful Cohen but also because the results were spoiled for me by way of a New York Times headline.
I remember being in school that day, eagerly awaiting my appointment with NBC's taped primetime coverage of ladies' figure skating. Just imagine my teenage displeasure when I signed onto the family desktop that evening and opened Internet Explorer to discover that "Figure Skater Arakawa Gives Japan Its First Gold Medal."
Ten years ago during the XX Olympic Winter Games in Turin, Italy, I certainly had not considered that a television event could be spoiled by just signing onto a computer. I had a Virgin mobile pay as you go phone -- the only text alerts I got were to remind me to pay as I went. Less than a month after the Turin games, Twitter was founded and effectively opened the floodgates of real-time.
The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, while plagued with controversy and challenges, have one noted benefit -- a time zone that accommodates live primetime coverage on the eastern seaboard. With over six thousand hours of coverage no one would argue the Olympics are a broadcast behemoth -- but it is worth recognizing NBCU's huge undertaking in pulling it off, especially in an age where people expect accessible, available content.
At a Paley Media Council Luncheon earlier this summer, NBC Olympics Executive Producer Jim Bell explained that NBC does not necessarily see the Olympics as a sports event. "The Olympics are truly unlike anything else," he said, offering the chart below comparing the 2012 Summer Olympics in London to Super Bowl 50 and the 2014 World Cup.
In deciding to make all Olympics events available via live stream for the London 2012 games, Bell made clear it was no easy resolution. "If that was going to cannibalize our [television] audience by even one viewer, why the heck would we do that?" he asked. Fans wanted to know why, if the technology existed, could they not watch their favorite events where and when they wanted? On the other hand, there were television advertisers, sponsors, affiliates and other business interests well worth considering.
Ultimately, London 2012 proved that audiences watching via live stream actually watched more hours of television than people who did not watch via live stream. Content saturation across media lead to increased television consumption, bucking broadcast trends. Bell called NBC's Olympics live stream accessibility "the rising tide that lifted all boats."
The learning did not apply to live stream alone. According to NBC Sports Group CMO Jenny Storms, more content across screens lead to more television viewing during both the London and Sochi Olympic Games. In 2016, social media is key to NBC's strategy in driving awareness and intent to view. Authentic and accessible content will enhance television ratings, said Storms.
"It's tough to argue against the power of the big event," Bell asserted -- a sentiment that I can relate to. Even though I knew all those years ago that Sasha Cohen had already lost her shot at gold in Turin, I did indeed watch the ladies figure skating finals that night on NBC. I remember well Arakawa's flawless performance skating to Puccini's Nessun Dorma and Cohen's falling on her first jump.
Regardless of the one-hour tape delay, I’ll still be watching NBC’s broadcast coverage of the Opening Ceremonies from Rio tonight at 8pm EST. Beyond being a “big event”, the Olympics are a “big experience” enjoyed at any time. Besides, one hour seems inconsequential when you figure the 2020 Summer Games are to be hosted in Tokyo, where gold medalist Shizuka Arakawa was born and the local time is thirteen hours ahead of New York City.
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