NBC's Olympics Lesson: Try to Monetize Streaming Better

Day 13
Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Jamaica's Usain Bolt celebrates winning gold in the men's 200m final.

Rio TV ratings dipped compared to London but online viewers surged as the economics evolve and viewers demand choices.

Declines from London highs in 2012 tarnished NBC's Rio ratings gold, but audience dips likely say more about how Olympic Games will be presented in the future than comparisons with the past.

"The biggest takeaway, and it's a good one for NBC, is to make everything available to the viewer as they want to consume it," says Horizon Media senior vp David Campanelli. "That is where TV in general is heading. That's the way advertisers have to adapt as well."

Those ad buyers, who committed more than $1.2 billion to the Rio Games before they started, are walking away largely pleased with the ratings, adds Campanelli. What expectations were not met — Rio averaged a 14.4 household rating on NBC, below the promised 17.5 rating — were made good in the "scatter" market. Media buyers say their Olympic clients are happy at the conclusion of the 17-night run.

As for NBCUniversal, which paid $7.75 billion for Olympics rights from 2022 through 2032, Rio wasn't as dramatically off from London as it first appeared. Its average plummets when including the opening and closing ceremonies, but primetime was down by less than 10 percent once cable and streaming are factored in. At 2.7 billion live-streamed minutes, Rio nearly doubled all previous Games combined. (That number reflects what NBC shares.)

"There are so many opportunities for advertising dollars," says Patrick Rishe, director of Washington University's sports business program, noting the time zones of PyeongChang, South Korea, in 2018 and Tokyo in 2020 will further fracture viewing. "It's just going to be easier and easier for the network to make money."

The strategy now for NBC will be to boost ad dollars from streaming. And down or up, digital or linear, the Olympics remain without equal in audience delivery. Says Campanelli, "Outside of the Super Bowl, the NFL playoffs and maybe the Oscars, where can you get that kind of ratings and reach? You can't."

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.