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They All Still Watched: The Uncomfortable Realities Of Olympic Broadcasting

Why NBC doesn't have to apologize for its policies after two nights of record ratings.

June 29, 2012; Omaha, NE, USA; NBC television reporter Bob Costas commentates during the 2012 U.S. Olympic swimming team trials at the CenturyLink Center. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-US PRESSWIRE
June 29, 2012; Omaha, NE, USA; NBC television reporter Bob Costas commentates during the 2012 U.S. Olympic swimming team trials at the CenturyLink Center. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-US PRESSWIRE

The Olympics is more of a cultural event than a sporting event. It's the same as the Super Bowl, or like the World Cup in other countries (and how the World Cup is developing in this country). Sports fans are a good percentage of the people watching, but not the entirety, or in some cases (the Super Bowl and Olympics, definitely) not even the majority. It's because there is an "elegance" promoted (whether deserved or not) by the Olympic movement that draws the person who might not find a sack from Ray Lewis or a jump throw by Derek Jeter to check out Michael Phelps in the pool, Usain Bolt on the track, or that creepy, Single White Female-y gymnastics team.

So, this is me stepping out there and being that guy who's fine with NBC tape delaying the Olympics in primetime, without showing it live elsewhere.

Let me qualify this. I'm not excusing NBC for their poor-quality streaming of major swimming events, which is indefensible. If the network is promising (as they have for months) that they'll get every event up live on the internet and on tablet devices, to not do so is a remarkable failure. This needs to be fixed by 2014 in Sochi, if not by the end of the current games.

When it comes to television, however, NBC can essentially do the broadcasting equivalent of obnoxiously yelling out "SCOREBOARD!" to the social media armies criticizing their practice of not showing every event live on television. They spent $1.1 billion to keep this Olympic Games away from ESPN and Fox, and so far, everything they've done has helped to make it pay off.

Through two nights (Opening Ceremonies and night one of competition on Saturday), NBC has averaged 35.6 million viewers. That is the best start to an Olympics on record, better than Atlanta in 1996 (33.3 million) and the much-heralded, largely live 2008 Games in Beijing (29.5). Saturday night, the network drew 28.7 million viewers, also better than Atlanta and Beijing. Only the Oscars, Grammys, and five NFL post-season games out-drew it for most-watched program this year, not including Friday night's Opening Ceremonies.

Just as further proof of NBC's success, let's look at opening night viewership numbers for every Summer Olympics since 1988:

  • Seoul, 1988 - 23.8 million
  • Barcelona, 1992 - 21.6 million
  • Atlanta, 1996 - 26.3 million
  • Sydney, 2000 - 21.0 million
  • Athens, 2004 - 19.8 million
  • Beijing, 2012 - 28.7 million

It is nothing short of miraculous that, in an age with 600 television channels and a ton of other sporting options and reality TV, NBC is capable of drawing better ratings in 2012 than they did during the 1988 Olympics, back when Fox and cable television were just in their infancy, when the broadcast networks ruled everything.

When you look at all of this, what do you really expect NBC to do? What they're doing is working, and it's working better than it ever has before. They'll probably do it again in two years in Russia, where the time difference will be a couple of hours greater, and have the same success. In an age of multiple platforms and new media, obviously, you have to stream everything, but when it comes to good ol' broadcast television, until they start seeing massive declines, they'll keep on doing what they're doing.

Maybe the more important question to ask about all this is "Why?". Why are people tuning into the Olympics in greater numbers, even as NBC gets 40 lashes from every human being with a non-spam Twitter account? Even if you take into account that social media's impact on things like television ratings is supremely overrated (which explains why NCIS is so popular), one could argue that all the complaining is just drawing more buzz to the network's primetime telecast. Kind of like those annoying TV reporters who post spoilers, people are tuning in, not just to see Michael Phelps win or lose, but how he won or lost.

It also goes back to my original argument, the one that sports fans - typically young and tech savvy - are not the majority of the Olympic audience. It's a little older, and averse to social media. I don't want to say that NBC's record-setting audience is filled with everyone's grandma and grandpa and aging baby boomers, but... okay, that might be what I'm saying. Fact is, though, that young people aren't tuning out either. Saturday night's coverage drew an 8.2 rating among adults 18-49, considered the young, hip demographic most desirable to be reached by advertisers.

So, the next time you take to Twitter or Facebook to exude outrage over not being able to see the latest swimming race or gymnastics event, remember that the entire world isn't necessarily hearing you. Even better, be wary of one of London's own slogans for the 2012 events: "Keep Calm, It's Only the Olympics."