Olympics 2012: NBC's 5 Biggest Lessons From London

NBC Twitter Graphic - P 2012

NBC Twitter Graphic - P 2012

Twitter venom and tape-delay gaffes mean little as record ratings and surprising digital numbers power Games success.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The games of the 30th Olympiad have been a study in opposites: In online chatter, NBC is being ripped for tape-delayed TV coverage and a series of perceived errors. Yet ratings are setting records, allowing NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke to declare that the company's $1.2 billion investment in the Games might actually break even compared with an anticipated $200 million loss. THR analyzes the five biggest takeaways from NBCU's coverage.

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The London Olympics are the first all tape-delayed primetime Summer Games of the social-media age. And in the Twitter echo chamber, where snark and derision are currency, unfettered opinionating has created a narrative of unforgivable gaffes and disaffection with NBC's coverage. According to Powell Tate's PoliPulse -- a dashboard of real-time social-media conversations -- the majority of the conversations were negative, with 48 percent of users unhappy with NBC's editing and spoilers. (The network ran a Today promo July 31 showing Missy Franklin with her gold medal for the 100-meter backstroke minutes before that race aired during primetime on the East Coast.) Meanwhile, only 15 percent of viewers appreciate that NBC is live-streaming most events online, according to PoliPulse.

Twitter might be for haters, but it also has brought mistakes into the mainstream: the spoiled Franklin victory; an insensitive promo featuring Crystal, the Animal Practice monkey, on the rings coming out of Bob Costas' stirring recap of Gabby Douglas becoming the first African-American woman to win the all-around gymnastics gold medal; and a July 29 interview with gymnast Aly Raisman, who had just qualified for the women's all-around field at the expense of teammate Jordyn Wieber, who was seen sobbing in the background. These missteps have been pounced on in the Twitterverse and in turn have become international news stories.

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In the first nine days of the Games, nearly 8 million users signed up for NBC's live-streaming service, and there were 7.1 million downloads of the company's Olympic apps -- NBC Olympics and NBC Olympics Live Extra -- the most downloads for any single TV event. Also in the first nine days, NBC notched 102.6 million video streams, surpassing the 75.5 million total streams for the entire 2008 Beijing Olympics. The takeaway: Viewer migration online is real, and it's being driven by big must-see events like the Olympics.

A pledge by NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus to show all events live either online or on TV raised initial concerns that it would depress viewership for NBC's highly lucrative primetime presentation, which because of the five-hour time difference between London and the East Coast had to be entirely tape-delayed. But the 2012 Games finally could put the cannibalization argument to rest -- at least when it comes to sports. For the first nine days, the Games averaged 33.9 million viewers a night on NBC, steamrolling all competition and becoming the most-watched of any non-U.S. Summer Olympics since the 1976 Montreal Games, when there were only three network broadcast channels and no such thing as the Internet. Importantly, London is beating tune-in for Beijing -- where many events were shown live in primetime -- by double digits.

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For all the complaints about inevitable mistakes and that tape-delayed primetime coverage, Americans still love watching the Olympics. The July 27 Opening Ceremony was watched by 40.7 million viewers, topping tune-in for the 1996 Atlanta Games (39.8 million) and the Beijing Games (34.9 million) to become the most-watched Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony in history. And the biggest night of competition to date -- July 30, when the U.S. women's gymnastics team captured the all-around gold medal and 17-year-old Franklin won her first of four gold medals -- was watched by 38.7 million viewers, many of whom already knew who was going to be atop the medal stand. As NBC Olympics executive producer Jim Bell told The Hollywood Reporter, "The numbers speak for themselves."