Winter Olympics: Six TV takeaways from NBC's performance

Experiencing the Olympics in virtual reality
Experiencing the Olympics in virtual reality

The Winter Olympics are nearly over, bringing with them the customary biennial status check on the viability of the Games and the enduring health of network TV's aging business model.

The report card, so far, indicates that the Olympics remain a marquee attraction -- the continuing embodiment of the thrill of victory and agony of defeat -- with several evolving caveats about their traditional power as a marketing platform. Here are a few of those takeaways:

The broadcast-TV pipes are weaker, but still work

NBC was the first network to air the Super Bowl and Winter Olympics in the same year since 1992, and their performance -- which is down, but nothing to sneeze at -- demonstrates that even in a fragmented age, broadcasters can still assemble massive audiences and create national conversations around such events. That might seem obvious, but given how rarely individual programs achieve that objective, it's worth noting.

Everything's relative

There's no getting around that NBC's Olympic ratings have declined, with steeper drops among the key demographics that advertisers covet. Yet a regular feature of NBC's press releases has involved pointing out that its results represent the "most dominant" night in Olympic history. From Feb. 12-18, for example, NBC's average 17.6 million viewers nearly doubled the 9.3 million amassed by ABC, CBS and Fox combined.

NBC's point is that ratings for the Games need to be viewed in the context of the gravity -- and abundance of options -- eroding at broadcast viewing, reinforcing the wisdom of its parent Comcast (CCZ) anteing up for future rights.

The migration to streaming is real

If it used to sound like an excuse for lower tune-in -- as in "The dog ate my homework" -- the "Streaming ate our ratings" argument has become a reality. With a week to go, NBC's digital content had already tripled results from Sochi in 2014, with the 11.6 million unique viewers representing a 174% gain from four years ago.

TV still remains the biggest game in town, but streaming is more than an afterthought. Small wonder NBC made a point of touting its results beyond the network, the ongoing challenge being whether traditional TV can monetize the audience that's being siphoned away fast enough to offset the drain.

Related: NBC's Winter Olympics ratings down but not exactly on thin ice

Minting marketing medalists

The Olympics remain a near-unparalleled tool for creating marketing stars -- the traditional face on the Wheaties box. Although the US didn't produce a slew of gold-medal winners, it still came away with a number of uplifting stories and fresh faces -- see the US women's hockey team -- that will surely be in demand as highly compensated product endorsers now, as well as fodder for such venues as "Dancing With the Stars" later. Notably, NBC tried to hire skater Adam Rippon during the Games, before he balked at leaving the Olympic Village.

Politics can't be avoided

Despite the flag waving surrounding the PyeongChang Games, the polarized nature of the political climate means even Olympic athletes are no longer immune to social-media attack, especially if they dare to express an opinion that goes beyond reaching the medal stand. The experience of skier Lindsey Vonn, who said she would decline an invitation to the White House; and Rippon -- an openly gay athlete who opted not to meet with Vice President Mike Pence -- is instructive in that regard, and emblematic of just how toxic the current media environment can be.

The "halo effect" is shrinking

The next big test for NBC is whether the promotional platform that the Super Bowl and Olympics provided through much of February will carry over after the Games -- a so-called "halo effect" that casts a positive glow over new series the network will introduce in the coming weeks.

Based on the signs of Olympic fatigue already creeping into the numbers, the likely answer is that the benefits will be more fleeting than ever -- that people caught up in becoming temporary experts on ice dancing and curling will quickly move on to whatever's next on their media diet. Still, with a barrage of new NBC shows to begin premiering next week, it won't take long to see whether the network's promo pyrotechnics fizzled, or sparked interest.


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