Olympics: How NBC's First All-Live Winter Games Could Impact TV Ratings

Will digital streams cannibalize primetime? The Hollywood Reporter crunches the numbers from the 2012 Games to see how this year's event could play out.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

For years, NBC sports' tape-delayed primetime Olympics package has been the target of loud, if not universal, grousing. For that reason, many wondered whether the network's decision to live-stream events from the 2012 London Summer Games on NBCOlympics.com would cannibalize primetime TV ratings. But research from the London Games confirms what the industry has come to embrace: Live streaming, even when it involves sports, is additive to TV viewing. And so, as it did from London, NBC will stream every Olympic event from Sochi, Russia, live online and via its mobile app NBC Sports Live Extra.

PHOTOS: 10 Medal-Worthy Olympics Movies

It will be the first all-live Winter Games, and while NBC Sports executives are loath to offer predictions, usage during the London Games portends healthy numbers for both TV and digital. Despite the proliferation of platforms, 89 per­cent of Olympics content out of London was con­sumed on TV. Simultaneous cross-platform use exploded during those Games: During the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, which occurred pre-­tablet, 32 percent of users consumed content on TV as well as on another platform; during London, that jumped to 54 percent. NBC expects the figure to be even higher out of Sochi. According to the network's research, the more devices a consumer used, the more they watched on TV.

"With sports, especially the Olympics, viewers want to watch it twice," says Rick Cordella, senior vp and GM, digital media, at NBC Sports Group. "They stream to see it live but then also want to see it in that movie-production environment that is repackaged for primetime."

The numbers bear that out: The overall average nightly audience during the 17 days of the London Games topped 31 million, and consumers who exclusively watched TV averaged four hours and 19 minutes. But those who watched on TV as well as a PC, laptop, mobile device or tablet averaged nearly nine hours, with six hours and seven minutes of that time spent watching TV. "We've been having the cannibalization debate forever," says Cordella. Not anymore.