Commentary: Thoughts for NBC after the Summer Games

Record ratings, online traffic gives net the right to a victory lap

The Summer Olympics concluded Sunday, and even NBC's critics can't deny that the network has earned a victory lap: Record-setting ratings. Record-setting online traffic. Record-setting ad sales.

And now -- all that's over.

So what lessons can NBC take away from its 17 days in the sun?

-- The network ain't broken. With ratings that often surpassed Athens four years ago, the Beijing Games proved that viewers return instantly for compelling content regardless of how many newfangled entertainment choices are available. Even during a severely depressed summer, NBC's presentation of the opening ceremony took off in the Nielsens as if the network had been winning May sweeps.

This should be a cattle prod to NBC's entertainment department: Although nobody expects a scripted drama in the throes of ultracompetitive fall to perform as strong as an international sporting event airing against repeats, constant ratings declines are not necessarily inevitable, either.

-- You gotta spend money. NBC's cost-cutting isn't just a gag on "30 Rock." The network orders such high-concept projects as "Heroes," "The Philanthropist" and "Kings" then struggles to keep the productions from appearing threadbare. NBC paid $894 million for the rights to the Games -- clearly money well spent. NBC's production values looked like those of a winning network for the first time all summer, and it had the ratings to match. NBC doesn't need the most expensive content, but it does need its storytelling -- whether scripted or reality, creatively modest or ambitious -- to appear high quality.

-- Online is important, but telecast is still king. With surpassing 1 billion page views, NBC has reason to brag about its online performance. Even viewers who griped about the broadcast feed had praise for NBC's Web streams. But according to the network, only two-tenths of 1% actually watched the Olympics solely on the Internet. The litmus test backs up what viewership studies have repeatedly shown: Given a choice, viewers would rather watch content on their TV than their computer.

-- Don't lie. Advertising tape-delayed telecasts as "live" and not being forthright about misleading elements in the opening ceremony were hardly earth-shattering ethical issues. Yet the topics were a needless distraction that significantly undermined the public's confidence in NBC's coverage. Countless headlines hounded NBC over technical issues -- the difficulty in changing onscreen graphics, giving Zapruder film-style analysis to a few seconds of fireworks coverage -- rather than focus on the network's quality day-to-day coverage.

-- Ducking controversy works (or at least doesn't hurt). While misleading viewers about minor fracases blew up in NBC's face, practically shrugging off major polarizing issues seemingly did little harm. NBC figured its job wasn't regime change but instead to broadcast an Olympics the best way it could amid sometimes trying circumstances and keeping quiet publicly -- sometimes painfully so -- while fighting for access behind the scenes. Embracing controversial stories that inflamed online news sites (pollution! underage gymnasts! arrested elderly protesters!) might have resulted in higher viewership, but we'll never know for sure. So while NBC might not have struck any blows for freedom in China, the network delivered what it promised: Olympics coverage.

-- Go big in research: Calling the Olympics the world's biggest media lab, research chief Alan Wurtzel and his team received an unprecedented amount of data on TV, viewer behavior, online page views and streaming and even the micro audiences on mobile wireless and VOD. The Total Audience Measurement Index, or TAMI, might not add up to much right now, but it's winning kudos for NBC from media agencies. "We believe the insights provided here are extremely valuable," Magna Global research chief Steve Sternberg said last week.

Paul J. Gough in New York contributed to this report.