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The Summer Olympics concluded Sunday, and even NBC’s critics can’tdeny that the network has earned a victory lap: Record-settingratings. Record-setting online traffic. Record-setting adsales.
And now … all that’s over.
So what lessons can NBC take away from its 17 days in thesun?
1. The network isn’t broken. With ratings that often surpassedAthens four years ago, the Beijing Games proved that viewers returninstantly for compelling content regardless of how many newfangledentertainment choices are available. Even during a severelydepressed summer, NBC’s presentation of the opening ceremony tookoff in the Nielsens as if the network had been winning Maysweeps.
This should be a cattle prod to NBC’s entertainment department:Although nobody expects a scripted drama in the throes ofultracompetitive fall to perform as strong as an internationalsporting event airing against repeats, constant ratings declinesare not necessarily inevitable, either.
2. 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 keepthe productions from appearing threadbare. NBC paid $894 millionfor the rights to the Games — clearly money well spent. NBC’sproduction values looked like those of a winning network for thefirst time all summer, and it had the ratings to match. NBC doesn’tneed the most expensive content, but it does need its storytelling– whether scripted or reality, creatively modest or ambitious –to appear high quality.
3. Online is important, but telecast is still king. WithNBCOlympics.com surpassing 1 billion page views, NBC has reason tobrag about its online performance. Even viewers who griped aboutthe broadcast feed had praise for NBC’s Web streams. But accordingto the network, only two-tenths of 1% actually watched the Olympicssolely on the Internet. The litmus test backs up what viewershipstudies have repeatedly shown: Given a choice, viewers would ratherwatch content on their TV than their computer.
4. Don’t lie. Advertising tape-delayed telecasts as “live” and notbeing forthright about misleading elements in the opening ceremonywere hardly earth-shattering ethical issues. Yet the topics were aneedless distraction that significantly undermined the public’sconfidence in NBC’s coverage. Countless headlines hounded NBC overtechnical issues — the difficulty in changing onscreen graphics,giving Zapruder film-style analysis to a few seconds of fireworkscoverage — rather than focus on the network’s quality day-to-daycoverage.
5. Ducking controversy works (or at least doesn’t hurt). Whilemisleading viewers about minor fracases blew up in NBC’s face,practically shrugging off major polarizing issues seemingly didlittle harm. NBC figured its job wasn’t regime change but insteadto broadcast an Olympics the best way it could amid sometimestrying circumstances and keeping quiet publicly — sometimespainfully so — while fighting for access behind the scenes.Embracing controversial stories that inflamed online news sites(pollution! underage gymnasts! arrested elderly protesters!) mighthave 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.
6. Go big in research: Calling the Olympics the world’s biggestmedia lab, research chief Alan Wurtzel and his team received anunprecedented amount of data on TV, viewer behavior, online pageviews and streaming and even the micro audiences on mobile wirelessand VOD. The Total Audience Measurement Index, or TAMI, might notadd up to much right now, but it’s winning kudos for NBC from mediaagencies. “We believe the insights provided here are extremelyvaluable,” Magna Global research chief Steve Sternberg said lastweek.
Paul J. Gough in New York contributed to this post.
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