Olympics More Than Just a Ratings Game for NBCU

By Steinberg, Brian | Variety, January 22, 2014 | Go to article overview

Olympics More Than Just a Ratings Game for NBCU


Steinberg, Brian, Variety


You won't find Alan Wurtzel skiing, skating or sliding down an ice-covered ditch in a luge, but NBCUniversal's self-professed research geek, who analyzes ratings and audience data for the company, is gearing up for an event of literally Olympic proportions - sifting through reams of information that looks at how viewers watch the Games on TV, mobile tablets and even while sitting at their office cubicle. In some cases, Wurtzel sends personnel into viewer homes to record exactly how they watch the Olympics and what devices they use.

Approximately a dozen staffers take part in the effort, which Wurtzel, president of research and media development at NBCU, has been running since the company's 2008 coverage of the Beijing Games. He says his studies of Olympics viewing behavior have helped NBCU determine early on, for instance, that consumers would rather launch apps than try to interact with a traditional Web page on a smartphone to access information.

"We are going to try to get a sense of how many people are adopting new behaviors and keeping them," said Wurtzel, who added that such insight is indispensable in helping management figure out how to best distribute information.

Starting Feb. 6, millions of sports fans will tune in - or tap in - to events such as team figure skating and men's and women's snowboard slopestyle. NBCUniversal is set to broadcast a whopping 1,539 hours of coverage from Sochi round-the-clock over the 18 days of the Olympics, much of it over digital platforms. More than 1,000 hours will be transmitted via streaming video to verified subscribers to cable, satellite or telco services. That leaves more than 500 hours for TV - far more than the 436 hours NBCU devoted to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

"The biggest thing this company ever does is the Olympics," said Steve Burke, NBC Universal's chief executive, during a recent meeting with reporters. "It is impossible to overstate how much it means to NBCUniversal and Comcast."

It's no secret that televising the event represents a big investment for Comcast, which took over NBCUniversal in early 2011 and quickly agreed to pony up $4.3 billion to keep the Games with NBCU through 2020. Rights fees for major sporting events are substantial, and securing ad support when marketers have so many media choices is no longer as sure a thing as it may have been in decades past. Still, execs expect the Sochi telecasts to be profitable, said Ted Harbert, chairman of NBC Broadcasting.

Despite the cost, in a fragmented TV-watching universe where few events can deliver huge audiences on the scale broadcasters experienced when just three TV networks dominated the landscape, the Olympics are a must-have, Harbert said. "At every broadcast network, you have to be in the big-event business," he noted. Such programming delivers opportunities marketers can't get yet from newer forms of ad-supported media.

The company's ad sales staff has spent months wooing sponsors. "There is more demand out there than we could accommodate," said Linda Yaccarino, president of NBCU's ad sales, noting the company has sold "significantly more than $800 million" in ads. …

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