After a few days of action we are getting a glimpse into the future of broadcast TV with NBC’s somewhat brave “experiment” in real time. NBC’s challenge was strike a balance between the way people consume information in 2012 with the need to make back their more than $1billion investment in the games. The network has to satisfy all the audience segments and stakeholders at the same time. The audience ranges from super savvy social media savants to grandma and everything in between - the very definition of a mass audience on a nationwide scale. And, they have to balance the needs of their sponsors with their distribution partners (cable/satellite) and reconcile that with the International Olympic Committee. The reality is the only way NBC can make it work financially is with expensive broadcast commercials and lots of them. Perhaps that equation will change in the future, but for now, mass marketing is where the money is for NBC. The Olympics offers one of last remaining programming assets to draw big numbers across all demo groups.
NBC made a correct decision offer all of the coverage live via their many cable channels and the web/mobile app. Nothing else would have made sense given the real time nature of media consumption today. However, given the business realities they need to make a few compromises. The marquee events are shown on tape delay at night though many people already know the outcome. Additionally, to see the live streaming video (and on demand) you need to sign in with your subscription to your cable or satellite provider. According to this Reuters article, about 90% of Americans subscribe to either cable or satellite. The requirement seems reasonable and the iPad App/web streaming worked great for me, though there have been complaints of spotty service. After using my Directv log in I was instantly browsing hours of events that were never broadcast over the air in the past. The videos are no frills, almost raw footage of low profile sports like weightlifting, judo and badminton among others. No announcers or commentary, just a feed.
I could make a few suggestions – perhaps offer a paid version of the App to people without existing cable/satellite subscriptions, or a no ad premium version. The commercials on the App are tedious. The bottom banners are fine, but the video pre-roll is way too long and obtrusive. The commercials are the same 30-second spots from TV. If they were cut down to 10 or 15 seconds it would be easier to digest. Also, the App does not make it clear you can fast forward during the coverage. An arrow in both directions would be helpful.
As you may have seen there was a lot of controversy and internet/twitter outrage over some elements of this plan – particularly around the use of tape delay. Many were calling for NBC to broadcast the Opening Ceremony live, which would have meant 4pm on Friday afternoon east coast and 1pm west. Perhaps the twitterati are home and in front of their TV mid day or maybe they wanted to spend the afternoon huddled over their laptop or mobile device watching it stream. NBC needs to move product (ad space) and needs the biggest audience possible and that means prime time.
The prime time shows are about storytelling and drama, not just results. So far the ratings confirm the strategy – a record 40 million watched the opening ceremony on Friday and another record was broken on Sat. night to see events that were long over. Many people already know the outcome; often from NBC’s own Twitter account, as they can’t pretend the event didn’t happen. It is seems like a strange contradiction, but NBC needs to maintain authenticity, while promoting the evening’s programming.
The Sunday night ratings were also up over 2008. In an era of media fragmentation, more people are watching the Olympics than ever before. I would surmise that all of the social media and streaming activity has increased overall interest. The raw results of who won/lost are becoming secondary. The story and the personalities are what draw in viewers. Social media enhances the storytelling and lets people interact with the athletes who all have twitter handles.
As for the twitter outrage and use of hashtags (#NBCFail and the equally charming #NBCsucks) they may not be reflective of a very large group of people. The incident is a good lesson for brands on social media in particular, Twitter. Some of the culture of Twitter seems to encourage complaining about old media and lavishing praise on the new and obscure. Kind of like your friend in college who only listened to bands no one had heard of except him. There is also a pack mentality that can grow over time and snowball. No one wants to be left out so they start retweeting and soon it a “movement”.
Heavy users of Twitter may not accurately represent mainstream TV viewers and they are often heavily invested in social media. While it is critical to listen to all customers and respond to their needs, it is also wise to remember the context. Having spent the past several years observing this group of early adaptors, I don’t think NBC could have done anything to truly make them all happy. For the first time in history, every minute of hundreds of events across thousands of hours is available to almost everyone across multiple platforms – live and on demand. An impressive achievement by any measure, but apparently not good enough or fast enough for some. Reminds me of this great bit by Louis CK – enjoy.