What Rio means for NBC and the future of its Olympics coverage

Iconic Olympics ads through the years
Iconic Olympics ads through the years

Much has been made of the disappointing ratings garnered by NBC's coverage of the Rio Olympics, and with good reason. But there's one very important group that, surprisingly, doesn't seem to be complaining: advertisers.

"I know from my clients that they were very happy to be advertising within the games and to have a vehicle that brought in big numbers in a fragmented market place," said Andy Donchin, chief investment officer at Amplifi, the global buying arm of media company the Dentsu Aegis Network.

While the number of people turning into NBC's primetime Olympics coverage was huge compared to the amount watching other networks, ratings still badly trailed those for the 2012 London games. Those results led to talk of NBC having to dole out "make goods" -- free ad time given to advertisers that didn't get their initial messages out to as many people as they'd paid to. Giving out make goods can be costly for a network, and doing it doesn't necessarily mean they won't still have unhappy clients.

But Donchin said that networks like NBC prepare for potential ratings shortfalls by holding back ad inventory which helped compensate buyers. And, he said, advertisers are looking at more than just the top line numbers.

"We always say that we're looking for an audience versus a rating," he said. "The Olympics delivers us a very prestigious and needed audience where we know we're going to get our message across, build awareness, and people are going to see our ads."

Still, even if NBC has avoided a revolt among its advertisers for now, that doesn't mean that it's happy about how Rio went. The company, which is owned by Comcast (CCV), has invested big in the Olympics with a $7.7 billion deal that runs through 2032. And suddenly that investment is looking riskier.

Related: NBC sees even weaker ratings as Olympics near end

The good news for NBC is that Rio broke internal streaming records; that its cable channels, like NBC Sports Network, saw solid viewership; and that Rio coverage pulled in nearly $1.2 billion in ad revenue before the games even started.

The bad news, however, is that Tokyo, where the Olympics will be held in 2020, is 13 hours ahead of the United States, which makes broadcasting live events more difficult and makes the ubiquity of social media and spoilers posted to it more of a threat. That's related to a question that is dogging NBC, the Olympics and all of TV: will younger viewers keep watching? The Rio games were down with those aged 18- to 49-years-old compared to the last four Olympics.

For advertisers, the question in four years won't just be about how many people are watching but how they're measured.

"I think in Toyko the ratings will probably dip even further because you're going to have the time element working against you," Donchin said. "But hopefully in four years we get it together and have a measurement that truly measures the total viewing that these games, or really anything, is bringing in."

This debate over the true reach of the Olympics is one of the reasons why NBC has been touting its "Total Audience Delivery" figure, which includes viewership for its broadcast network, its cable networks, and digital.

Related: Does NBC's Olympics coverage really deserve the criticism it's gotten?

Donchin believes that despite the lower viewership for Rio, the Olympics still have a level of reputation that advertisers covet and that shouldn't change for 2020.

"In terms of the attractiveness of the Olympic games, I don't think that's going to diminish at all," he said.

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