The Rio Olympics ratings are down, partly because NBC won’t evolve
The early ratings are in, and so far the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics isn’t quite living up to its predecessors, at least not so far.
The numbers are good, but not great. The first weekend saw an average of 26.7 million American viewers. That would make it the fifth most watch opening weekend, but it’s also more than 10 million less than the 2012 London games, which averaged 36.8 million. There are a few reasons for this – especially if you ask NBC – but there is one glaringly obvious cause for the loss of viewers: NBC refuses to evolve and embrace the obvious trend of the future.
The network remains a holdout when it comes to fully embracing new platforms. It isn’t alone in that, but it is trailing its competitors. CBS has its own streaming app; ABC is about to have a big online presence thanks to Disney; Fox has its own app for streaming some of its content. NBC, however, has a poorly designed app that feels like an afterthought. So naturally, its Olympics coverage is also choppy at best.
NBC’s Olympics coverage has been a mess from the start on all platforms. Although Rio is just an hour ahead of Eastern Standard Time, the event was tape delayed an hour (four hours on the West Coast). The reason for this was obvious enough – NBC wanted to maximize its audience. Its official reason though (or at least one of them), was painful to listen to and fairly insulting.
“The people who watch the Olympics are not particularly sports fans. More women watch the games than men, and for the women, they’re less interested in the result and more interested in the journey,” said John Miller, NBC’s chief of marketing. “It’s sort of like the ultimate reality show and miniseries wrapped into one. And to tell the truth, it has been the complaint of a few sportswriters. It has not been the complaint of the vast viewing public.”
The opening ceremonies were somewhat painful to watch – and listen to. The presentaiton was inundated with ads, and they were cut into the event at weird, almost arbitrary times. The coverage would cut away in the middle of a performance, then come back midway into the next. There was no real thought to it, NBC just wanted to make sure to get its ads in on schedule and it didn’t really care about what viewers though. In total, the 65-minute performance featured eight lengthy ad breaks.
That was bad enough, but the commentary was even worse. During the performance, Meredith Vieira described Brazil as “cultural cannibals” while discussing the nation’s musical influences. She went on to say, “They take the music from all over the world and they make it their own.” It was a little thing, but it didn’t go unnoticed.
Later on during the Parade of Nations, the announcers seemed to have no idea what to do or say. Rather than talk about the athletes, the announcers seemed to delight in listing the troubles of each nation and making fun of their names (Djibouti was a particularly cringe-worthy moment). The commentators also repeated themselves to distraction. It’s fine to mention that the United States was listed under its Portuguese name, Estados Unidos, meaning alphabetically it would come out under “E” instead of “U,” but saying it five times in 15 minutes is distracting.
Things didn’t get much better once the actual games started. After a dominant performance from American gymnast Simone Biles, NBC’s Al Trautwig lit Twitter on fire by saying Biles’ adoptive parents aren’t really her parents. Bile’s was adopted by her grandfather and his wife, and the couple raised Biles like their own. For some unfathomable reason though, Trautwig felt the need to point out that “she was raised by her grandfather and his wife, and she calls them Mom and Dad.” When it was pointed out on Twitter that they legally adopted her, making them her actual parents, Trautwig doubled down and said “They may be mom and dad, but they are NOT her parents.” He eventually apologized.
Things didn’t get any better during swimming coverage when Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu absolutely smashed the 400-meter individual relay medley world record. NBC’s Dan Hicks praised Hosszu’s husband and coach Shane Tusup, going so far as to call him “the man responsible” for her record-breaking performance. Many correctly pointed out that the person ultimately responsible for Hosszu’s performance was, in fact, Hosszu.
There are several other instances of this that probably alienated fans and hurt the ratings a bit. There’s also talk that America’s recent dominance in the summer Olympics may have caused people to be less interested, but that seems overly cynical – and it doesn’t explain how the opening week of the games just four years earlier was the most watched in American history.
The bigger issue is that NBC refuses to accept that there is a huge audience online that is willing to watch the games streaming who don’t have – or want – a cable or satellite subscription. Instead of tailoring some of its content for that audience, NBC blocked its coverage and ignored that sizable contingent.
NBC, which is owned by Comcast, has done everything it can to force you to watch its Olympics coverage on NBC, MSNBC, Bravo, USA, NBCSN, CNBC, the Golf Channel, NBC Universo, and Telemundo. That’s a lot of coverage, but it’s only accessible to cable/satellite subscribers. You can stream it through NBCOlympics.com, but unless you already receive those channels through a current cable subscription, you can only watch for 30 minutes. And given that NBC’s often confusing scheduling makes it hard to find specific events (and if the event doesn’t have a potential American medalist, it won’t get on TV), then you are forced to watch the app – if you can.
For the people that are able to access the online content, they are met with a partially broken service. Specific streams are hard to find, the coverage is often out of order, links frequently don’t work, and the top streams are often placed next to news announcing the winner of the stream you are about to watch. Given that most of the coverage is tape delayed, especially here on the West Coast, that’s beyond frustrating. The video player is also limited and won’t resize in a browser. that’s a small complaint, but it’s not like NBC can’t afford to embed a decent video player.
To make matters worse, the streams frequently go to commercial breaks where there are no commercials, so instead you are stuck watching the same “Coverage Will Resume Shortly” screen over and over and over again.
It all highlights NBC’s lack of care for online viewers, and lack of understanding.
As of July 2016, 25-percent of American households watch TV through means other than cable or satellite. That’s up two percent in the last year. Beyond that, 38-percent of 18-34-year olds don’t rely on cable TV. With platforms like Hulu and Netflix growing exponentially, that number is likely to go up.
NBC is sacrificing its future for its present. It puts little to no emphasis on its online presence for the Olympics, and even after years of online streaming NBC still can’t figure out how to properly work ads into its service. ESPN has the same issue with its online coverage – rather than sell online only ads, it replays commercials for the network itself and cuts it in with a graphic and some music that is guaranteed to annoy anyone after time. It’s also just bizarre that NBC refuses to let non-subscribers watch online rather than, say, charging them $10 for two weeks of coverage. Considering that the alternative is no profit, that money would be pure bonus.
At a recent Television Critics Association press tour in LA, NBC’s research boss Alan Wurtzel presented his research that showed people are less likely to starting watching a show already on the air if they don’t have easy access to the previous episodes. Anyone that has Hulu can probably tell you just how frustrating it is to discover a new series and find that only the last five episodes are available. And yet NBC is only now realizing that by limiting back episodes of a show and not catering to its online and on-demand audience, they are less likely to watch. It’s mind blowing that it took a researcher to uncover that.
And that’s the problem with NBC as a whole – it refuses to grow up and adapt with the times. There may be more money to be made through cable/satellite in general, but ignoring as much as 25-percent of the country is, among other things, bad business.
NBC isn’t alone in this. Disney recently invested $1 billion in a streaming technology company, with plans to bring much of its content to its own streaming platform (including ABC). That deal will not include ESPN though. Despite ESPN hemorrhaging viewers, the sports network is still Disney’s most profitable channel, and making it available online without a cable/satellite subscription would anger companies like Comcast that are bitterly holding on to an old model rather than leading the charge to the new.
One of its rivals, Time Warner, has begun to embrace streaming platforms. It owns 10-percent of Hulu, helped to launch HBO Now, and is planning to provide content for Hulu’s upcoming online-only cable-like service that offers linear and on-demand programming. Some companies seem to get it.
NBC has the rights to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea and the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Many analysts believe that by 2020 digital video will overtake traditional television as the top source of entertainment. That gives NBC two years to grow up and evolve or risk further eroding its audience.