NBC Sports Group chairman Mark Lazarus stands by the decision to edit IOC president Thomas Bach’s Sochi Games Opening Ceremony speech, and said he was not surprised the Bob Costas pinkeye story had gone “viral” because Costas is a national Olympics institution. In a wide-ranging phone call with reporters today, Lazarus also said he was not worried the lackluster performance by U.S. athletes so far would translate to lower ratings, and dismissed suggestions NBC’s primetime tape delays would impact numbers, calling it an out-of-date notion. But he also said a focus on NBC’s primetime ratings, or even NBC’s ratings, was too narrow a way to look at Games’ performance for the company.
Lazarus and NBCUniversal research president Alan Wurtzel said that, as with the London Summer Games, they have discovered that extra digital content helps, not hurts, primetime ratings. “The more devices people use to view the Olympics on, the more they watch…A rising tide lifts all boats,” Wurtzel said. In a rat-a-tat presentation, Wurtzel tossed out a storm of stats demonstrating the network’s flood-the-zone, mostly live Olympics presentation strategy was working well and having no negative impact on NBC’s Games ratings in primetime. “Our strategy of providing more live coverage across all our platforms is once again proving to be very appealing,” Lazarus said. “Viewers want event programming. There is no bigger event than the Olympics. Our multi-platform presentation style has clearly resonated with them,” he said.
More than 30 million people in the United States have visited its Olympics websites, up 54 percent from the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, the execs said.
Through the first five nights of the Winter Olympics, including the opening ceremony, NBC has averaged 25.9 million primetime viewers, which Lazarus said exceeded expectations, considering the Vancouver Winter Games, during which NBC was able to present many live events because of the North American setting, averaged 26.4 million in the same period. More relevant, the Torino Winter Games, back in ’06, averaged 21.6 million viewers over the comparable period.
Lazarus said the lessons were learned with the London Summer Games – the first Olympics at which NBC decided to stream all competition live, including marquee events previous saved for primetime — and that viewers have adjusted and become accustomed to the new Games “ecosystem.” “The headline is the success of our cross-platform strategy,” chimed in Wurtzel. “We love television, but the future is not just about television. It’s about television complemented with all of the other platforms that we have,” he said. According to research for the first few days of the Sochi Games, two-thirds of viewers are using at least one other device in addition to a television to watch the Games, with 49% saying they’re using TV and one other device, and more than one-third using TV and two other devices.
(And then there’s curling, which, on Monday made NBCSN the No. 1 cable network from noon-7 PM. More than 1.2 million people watched curling matches on CNBC on Monday. “Curling is almost unstoppable,” Lazarus noted.)
That notion in the press that tape-delaying primetime, including the Opening Ceremony, is an “urban myth” said Wurtzel, noting about the nine-hour delay from Sochi to the U.S. “for most viewers, it just doesn’t matter.” He said 44% of respondents to a survey they conducted said they had heard competition results on Saturday, for instance, but it “had no impact” on their viewing, and more than one third of respondents said knowing results in advance made them “more interested.” Meanwhile, nearly 600,000 people watched Shaun White’s halfpipe runs online Tuesday afternoon — but only 15 percent of Olympics viewers said that knowing the results made them less interested in watching him flame out in primetime. So much for “SPOILER ALERT”.
Lazarus noted that with popular events like figure skating, viewing of live streams had been good but “a huge percentage” of those people are then watching the events again in primetime “to see the packaged, curated, beautiful stories that our primetime telecasts, led by Jim Bell and his incredibly talented team, put together each night. We learn from that,” he said. The turning point in NBC’s strategy he said when asked, came when NBC decided to stream every event live at the London Summer Games and noticed that the tape-delayed broadcasts of events like swimming competitions continued to go up regardless.
Wurtzel took some time to knock down another “urban myth” about the Sochi Games: While viewers are aware of the reports about unfinished infrastructure at the Games – athletes having to bust down doors to get out of their hotel bathroom, weirdly colored tap water, lack of flooring in rooms, lack of pillows, etc – 80% said it does not in any way affect their interest in the Games.
Lazarus preemptively defended the decision to edit Bach’s speech before any reporter had time to ask him about it. In his speech, Bach made the same point about tolerance and anti-discrimination and inclusion several times, Lazarus said. The speech was “edited for time and time only.” Bach’s message was delivered to the U.S. via NBC’s primetime coverage “loud and clear,” Lazarus insisted, adding that the company supports Bach’s message. He acknowledged that NBC Sports had had “private conversations” with the IOC since the editing of the speech, telling reporters that “no matter how you try to ask” questions about those conversations “they will remain private.”
Doctors have “worked hard to clear up” Costas’ pinkeye and NBC Sports is thankful to have NBC News here to loan us Matt Lauer,” Lazarus said. He said he was not at all surprised by the interest in Costas’ illness. “I am not surprised it has attracted this much attention. Bob is America’s Olympics Host and people have been watching him do it, and extraordinarily well” for years. “They expect him to be here, and when he’s not – it’s a story.” He declined to explain to those interested reporters, however, what was being done to treat Costas, except to say, “he’s staying in the hotel and in a dark room and trying to get better.”
Asked if there was any concern that stars like White have not medaled might impact audience interest in the Games, he said “We certainly like it when the stars win medals, but last night when White flamed out in the halfpipe “ratings were tremendous and most people knew he hadn’t won” because the competition happened hours earlier. “People wanted to see how it happened — the changing of the guard. And iPod is a lightning rod figure,” Lazarus said of Russian snowboarder Iouri Podladchikov, competing for Switzerland, who took the gold that had been expected to be White’s third consecutive. “Certainly people want to see Americans win medals back home, but they also want to see how stars don’t quite live up to expectations. While it’s impossible to measure” at this point the impact the lackluster-ish performance of U.S. athletes will have if it keeps up, “but the bottom line is people are interested in the Olympics,” Lazarus said, explaining the enormous interest by U.S. viewers in the Canadian coach who yesterday came to the assistance of the Russian cross-country skier whose ski had broken in a fall. And, a digital clip the Russian speedskater who unzipped her uniform after her race — only to remember she wasn’t wearing anything underneath and zip it back up – has been checked out by more than 2 million people, the execs boasted.