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Published: 2/23/2014

NBC pleased by Olympic experience

TV executives consider Sochi Winter Games a success

ASSOCIATED PRESS
The Olympic Rings are silhouetted as fireworks light up the sky during the closing ceremonies at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics on Sunday in Russia. The Olympic Rings are silhouetted as fireworks light up the sky during the closing ceremonies at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics on Sunday in Russia.
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NBC Universal's Sochi performance is partly measured in gold, too.

Televising the Olympics is a complex, multi-million dollar business venture that seems to have more riding on it every two years. Beyond attracting millions of people to the broadcast network each night, NBC used the Sochi games to popularize streaming video, develop a cable sports network, and launch entertainment programs.

NBC was able to concentrate on these goals largely because pre-Olympic worries about terrorism, security, and the safety of people uncomfortable with Russia's gay rights laws faded when competition began.

"If I'm NBC, and I'm looking at the biggest crisis being Bob Costas' eyes, I think it's been a success," said Andrew Billings, a sports media professor at the University of Alabama and author of Olympic Media: Inside the Biggest Show on Television.

Here's a look at some of those moving parts:

Ratings

NBC's prime-time viewership averaged 22.1 million people through Friday. Although fading at the end, that number should still land between the 2010 Vancouver games (24.4 million), which had the advantage of live prime-time events, and the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy (20.2 million).

The games are increasingly shutting off competition: 15 rivals' programs, including Grey's Anatomy, American Idol, and Dancing With the Stars, had higher ratings while competing against the Olympics in 2006, the Nielsen company said. Four years ago, three programs (all American Idol) beat the games. This year there were none.

Internally, the most debated move was showing figure skating — the most popular sport in the winter games — live on cable's NBC Sports Network during the day and repackaging the routines at night. That didn't appear to siphon viewers from prime-time, as some feared.

Revenues

More importantly for NBC's parent Comcast Corp., the company said the Sochi games will comfortably turn a profit. The company paid $775 million for the rights to the games, with expenses in the $100 million range. At the games' outset, NBC said national ad sales had already exceeded $800 million, and more money was pouring in.

Aging audience

One concern for the future is the Olympics' aging audience, a disturbing trend for advertisers. The median age of the Olympic viewer increased from 50.9 in 2006 to 55.1 this year, despite the addition of snowboard and halfpipe events designed to appeal to young people.

Streaming

The network streamed all Sochi competition live, more than 1,000 hours compared to three hours in Turin. Some fans were annoyed by a requirement to prove they have cable or satellite subscriptions to watch online, which was the condition providers set to allow NBC to do it. A record was set for most-streamed event three days in a row, topped with 2.1 million streams for the U.S.-Canada men's hockey semifinal.

Creatively, NBC's Web sites moved beyond straight streams of events. One popular new daytime entry, Gold Zone, whipped followers from venue to venue for live look-ins, a program modeled after the successful NFL Red Zone series.

The Web sites had occasional navigation issues, but nothing major.

"You can be sure if it hadn't worked, we would have heard about it," Bell said.

He realized a digital threshold had been crossed when his wife sent him a picture of his teenage son watching the shootout between the Russian and American hockey teams on his iPhone while at a wrestling match, with dozens of people crowded around to catch a glimpse.

NBC Sports Network

With the daytime figure skating and other events, NBC Universal sought to familiarize viewers with the new NBC Sports Network, and has been excited about the results.

It remains to be seen if the network will have enough compelling programming post-Olympics, but "at least it becomes an 'I know where that is on the dial, let's see what's on' type of channel," Billings said.

Social media

NBC established business ties to Twitter and Facebook, but the social media sites have also become the go-to platforms for people who have gripes about coverage. The hashtag #nbcfail, which emerged in the London games in 2012, resurfaced. The biggest ongoing complaint is how NBC packaged the events for prime-time, which is especially noticeable when the time difference prevents the staging of live events.

"If they're able to get through without too much profanity, even if I don't like what they say, I try to respond," Bell said. He's made adjustments to NBC's Web sites because of suggestions he's seen online.

The halo

No viewer could miss NBC's aggressive effort to promote other programming through Olympic tie-ins.

The most important was launching Jimmy Fallon's tenure as Tonight show host. The 8.5 million viewers it averaged during its first week represented the most-watched week for Tonight in two decades, since the week of the Cheers finale, and dwarfed the audiences of competitors David Letterman and Kimmel, who were both in the two to three million range.



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