The Olympics officially kicks off tomorrow night in London when Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony may be watched by as many as 4 billion people worldwide. Along with the athletes, Boyle and pretty much everyone involved in the Summer Games has something at stake. In Boyle’s case, it will be living up to the huzzahs the Beijing opener received four years ago; for London 2012 organizers, it will be proving their mettle faced with disgruntled locals, bad weather and snarling traffic. And for major broadcasters like NBC, it will be commanding ratings and ad coin across more platforms than ever before. This is NBCUniversal’s first Games under new owner Comcast. NBC’s Olympics executive producer Jim Bell calls the coverage “a hybrid of innovation and tradition”.
The level of coverage for London 2012 is unprecedented. Between NBC and the UK’s BBC alone there will be more than 8,000 hours of content – that’s equal to about 11 straight months. And there are only an estimated 3,000 hours of actual sports to go around. NBC has 5,535 hours of coverage planned over its free-to-air and cable channels and its online properties — that’s 2,000 more hours than in Beijing. Compare that to just 171 hours of coverage for the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games and you see how exponentially the Olympics beast has grown. NBC will have 2,800 staff in London and 700 more working from New York. The home town BBC is modest in comparison with just 765 staff covering the Games. In all, there will be about 28,000 members of the media in London – or about three times the number of athletes.
Related: Jim Bell To Top NBCU’s Olympics Coverage
NBC has been home to the Olympics for over two decades, but this is the first year their traditional custodian, Dick Ebersol, won’t be running the show — he left NBC last year when Comcast bought the company. Ebersol hire Mark Lazarus took over as NBC Sports chairman and under his guidance came the push to stream all of the events live and in real time while putting highlights on in primetime. Ebersol is a consultant in London, where executive producer Bell tells me, “He’s somebody who has unprecedented knowledge of the Olympics and has been a huge mentor to me and to virtually everybody here and we’re thrilled to have him”. The pair goes back a long way: Ebersol hired Bell as a production assistant for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
Related: Is Dick Ebersol Back At NBC Sports?
NBC is calling the Olympics a “billion dollar lab” where the online experiment will help dictate how the Games are covered in the future. Early online sign-up has been “pretty good,” says Bell, “but the first test is going to be after first full day of competition on Saturday. For all the talk about the second screen and live stream, primetime is still also very important to us and I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon”.
Lazarus has said the decision to stream all events was made “because we think that as times have changed that there is a sense to satisfy all people… And the ability to provide live streams of every event is one that we now have, and we believe will work… We also believe firmly to package and put together the best stories with the most high profile events should be saved, from a television point of view, for when the most people are available to watch it, which is in primetime”. Die-hard fans may get up to watch rowing at 4 AM in New York when it’s 9 AM in London, but the Olympics has traditionally been more than a sporting event where the personal stories are a draw for an audience that doesn’t typically care that much about sports. (NBC’s own data says that 69M people who watched Beijing never watched an NFL game that season.) In other words, the demographic that’s in it for the pageantry and emotion is more likely to be in front of the TV at night. That’s an area where Ebersol will come in handy, having been integral to building interest in the Games via the human stories that are part and parcel of the event. The live online streams will in most cases be without commentary, removing a key element that excites and informs viewers.
Although NBC contends live streams don’t cannibalize primetime television, it has drawn skepticism over the plan, which will also require users to authenticate before they can access the content (a portion of online coverage like highlights or replays will be accessible without authentication). But if ad dollars are any barometer, the decision so far looks like a winner. On Wednesday, NBCUniversal said it had sold $1B in TV and online advertising, setting a record with about $150M more than the network pulled in for Beijing. Digital was a big contributor to the current total: $60M in ads were sold for NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Olympics Live Extra app, three times the total in Beijing. Further, online sports broadcaster Perform Group’s Global Sports Media Consumption Report recently found that 71% of U.S. fans will watch on TV with 16% via computer and 7% on mobile phones, according to PaidContent.
Lazarus is cautious about ratings, however. He recently said it was “an unlikely scenario” that NBC would match the ratings for the Beijing Games because the extreme time difference with China worked out better than it will with London. “We’re not going to measure ourselves on whether we achieve those ratings or not, we’re going to measure ourselves based on whether several hundred million people experience the Games across our platforms, and we feel very good that we can achieve that goal”, he told reporters. “We believe that we can achieve ratings higher than anything else on television, maybe for the year, but we’re not measuring ourselves against Beijing”. According to Nielsen, the 2008 Beijing opening ceremony garnered 18.8% of US TV households for 34.9M viewers.
Regarding economics, Lazarus says, “The jury’s still out. I don’t know where we’ll end up… We’re not predicting we’ll necessarily be profitable, but we do know from the time of the NBC-Comcast merger, the financial position of these games will be enhanced. We’re confident that the deal we made for four Games will be a profitable deal for us when the final scores come in”. Still, by the sound of it, he’s feeling some pressure. “I don’t think you can create a legacy with one Games, so my strong preference is to be invited back to do the next one”. NBC has the Olympics through 2020.
NBC is also looking to take advantage of a captive audience to preview two of its new shows, Go On and Animal Practice, in commercial-free airings. The network will also preview six minutes of new drama Revolution in the key Saturday August 4 slot just after the swimming competition that’s expected to feature Michael Phelps. The network, which continues to struggle in primetime, will also use the Games as a promotional window for other businesses within Comcast and NBCU including cable services and theme parks.
Television coverage on NBC will start with the Today show, which will broadcast from London with a seven-hour daytime program and breaks for news. Primetime Olympics programming, hosted by Bob Costas, starts at 8 PM — when all other Olympic coverage on NBC’s other channels will stop. The Games will also be an opportunity to boost the NBC Sports Network, the group’s hopeful rival to ESPN, which will air the U.S. team sports beginning every day in step with London. CNBC will cover boxing; MSNBC is handling longform programming; Bravo is taking care of tennis; and Spanish-lingo net Telemundo will air boxing, swimming, basketball and soccer.
On the social-network front, Twitter and NBCU announced a partnership this week that will use the microblogging service as a sort of official narrator. NBC said no dollars are changing hands, nor will the network share in Twitter’s ad revenue from its Games website. NBC will also flash a Facebook Talk Meter on its broadcasts to show what’s driving the conversation.
On the home field, the BBC will air 2,500 hours of programming with round-the-clock coverage on TV channels BBC One and BBC Three as well as via 24 dedicated digital services, quadruple the coverage it provided in Beijing. The BBC is moving BBC One soaps and such like Eastenders — where the Olympic flame made a live appearance Monday night — to BBC Two for the two-week period. BBC One’s coverage will begin at 6 AM every day and continue until 1 AM. Former English football star Gary Lineker will host the main primetime show. The BBC is also broadcasting certain events in 3D and certain venues in super HD. And, it launched an Olympics app that will provide headline news to subscribers wherever they are in the world.
The opening ceremony in Beijing brought the BBC 5.9M viewers at a peak. Expectations are that numbers will easily top 10M for Boyle’s Isles Of Wonder on Friday. The recent Euro Cup soccer tournament drew much higher numbers, but the demo for soccer games and the Olympics is kind of like comparing audiences for Monday Night Football to those of American Idol.
As for cannibalizing those audiences, a recent survey conducted by YouGov found that only 20% of UK consumers over 18 intend to watch the Games online. Sixty-five percent expect to watch via traditional TV at home and 10% on public TV screens.
In Australia, the Games will be telecast on the free-to-air Nine Network and pay-TV platform Foxtel. Nine is screening more than 300 hours across its flagship channel, digital offshoot GEM and a 3D channel created specifically for the Olympics. Foxtel is delivering more than 3,200 hours of coverage, including 1,100 hours of live events, on eight dedicated channels operating 24 hours a day. The Games are free for Foxtel Sports subscribers.
Canada’s Olympic Broadcast Media Consortium is airing the opening ceremony across its TV and online platforms as well special apps. In a departure from its neighbors to the south, Canada is airing the opening ceremony live starting at 4 PM ET. Video description will be available for the blind and visually impaired. There will also be an encore presentation available online.
Other major broadcasters around the world include ESPN Brazil, FranceTV, ARD and ZDF in Germany, RAI and Sky in Italy and RTVE in Spain. The Perform Group’s report found that across Europe, viewers in Spain, Italy and Russia will mostly watch the events on TV. Brazil and China are anticipated to be heavy TV viewers, but China also had the highest percentage of people (70%) who said they’d consume content online.
In China in 2008, CCTV.com offered 62 live streaming channels, 30 streaming channels of pre-recorded events and over 8,000 on-demand clips. The live streams drew over 150M total viewers, the on-demand clips drew 237M views, according to Digital Rapids, which provided the technology for the streaming. (Chunghwa Telecom is also streaming events this summer to customers in Taiwan on its HiNet web platform.)
During the Beijing Olympics, state broadcaster CCTV had a record nine channels broadcasting the Games. This year, the network will dial down the coverage providing three designated channels along with an HD and a 3D channel. This year, CNTV, a new media division of CCTV, and NeuLion will partner to deliver over 5,600 hours of live HD Olympic coverage, including a 24/7 live channel from CCTV and daily live event coverage of nine Olympic sports online.
In parts of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, the International Olympic Committee will make all Olympic events available via YouTube. Viewers in 64 territories including Singapore, Malaysia and India will have access to over 2,200 hours of HD coverage including sports and highlight reels.