The Long Read: Nothing But Commercials? US Olympic viewers have never had it so good

US broadcaster NBC has been widely censured for its TV coverage of Rio 2016 but its digital metrics, as the network has pointed out, demand nothing but respect.

The Long Read: Nothing But Commercials? US Olympic viewers have never had it so good

NBC may hold the most important commercial contract in the Olympic movement, but that has not stopped the US broadcaster coming in for a considerable amount of stick for its coverage of Rio 2016.

Before the Games, there were the usual grievances. The NBC team had not yet arrived in Rio when US viewers began complaining about the prospect of another 17 days of tape-delayed programming and an overabundance of commercial ad breaks. Then there was the revelation that the network had tried to have the official language of the Games changed to English in order to keep American viewers watching the opening ceremony for longer, which did nothing for its street cred. But all that was merely the prologue to the rebellion to come.

As the Games have drawn on, criticism of NBC has grown louder and decidedly more personal. The name-calling began when one disgruntled viewer jokingly dubbed the network ‘Nothing But Commercials’ and only escalated when #NBCFail started trending on Twitter. Within days, ‘NBC Olympics terrible’ became a suggested Google search term. Fox News even dared to ask: 'Is NBC's Olympics coverage the worst ever?'

Clearly, the significance of NBC’s feat of selling more than US$1.2 billion in advertising - enough to just about cover the cost of its rights outlay - had been lost on US audiences. Early Nielsen data indicated that its viewership numbers had nosedived when compared to past Olympics, with reports suggesting that primetime ratings during the opening weekend of Rio were some way behind the Games of 2012, 2008, and even 1992.

But if millions of American viewers had chosen to take a more forgiving stance - perhaps as a result of having been forcibly desensitised over the years to excessive ad breaks during live sports events - some certainly weren't willing to accept what they deemed uninformed, insensitive and, in some cases, sexist commentary. This is, after all, the 21st Century, and the sound of a male NBC pundit hailing a female swimmer’s husband as “the man responsible” for her world-record breaking gold medal performance was, at least for some discerning listeners, incongruent with modern-day attitudes.

Still, NBC has shown nothing but admirable stoicism in the face of this deluge of criticism. Even as viewers have turned against it in their numbers, the network has stuck to its guns and continued to approach these Games as it does any Olympics - with a staunchly patriotic focus on pre-packaged, US-centric programming.

Assembled as a form of light entertainment for all the family, its traditional broadcast product, for so long a staple of the American Olympic experience, has been thoughtfully designed to cater to a broad audience not ordinarily interested in sport. Women - that portion of the US population “less interested in the result and more interested in the journey” when it comes to sport, according to John Miller, the NBC Olympics chief marketing officer - have been duly accounted for. Presented by lovable Bob Costas and his friendly-faced colleagues, the backstories of a select few homegrown stars have been handpicked for America’s viewing pleasure and milked throughout, bestowing all-American greats like Katie Ledecky, Michael Phelps and Simone Biles with the rightful honour of starring roles in what is essentially carefully constructed, sugar-coated theatre. 

“We are aggregating audiences at a scale nobody has done before. This will be our most economically successful Games in history."

NBC’s greatest achievement, however, has been its ability to turn all the negativity surrounding its TV ratings into a corporate success story. Unperturbed by the criticism - or, perhaps, driven by it - last Friday the network’s sports staff issued a statement that painted an altogether rosier picture than the one of doom and gloom disseminated with relish by other media outlets. 

Though the numbers for Rio had been down on London 2012, the company was quick to point out that viewing habits had in fact changed markedly since four years ago. We may not have noticed, for example, how ‘viewers are no longer held hostage to outmoded TV formulas’, or that ‘consumers really do want what they want’. Viewers were simply watching more content than ever before on other devices, NBC said - a shift in behaviour which meant that what the network had lost in traditional viewership, it had more than made up for on cable and online.

‘You just need to remember eyeballs are still eyeballs – and still a valuable commodity to advertisers - whether they’re drawn to big-screen TV or smartphones,’ the statement went on.

The triumphalist spin didn’t stop there. Friday's statement also noted how NBC’s own NBCSN and Bravo cable channels were, for the first time ever, providing competition to its linear Olympic primetime coverage by serving up premium live sports to those viewers who were somehow turned off by ’the carefully-assembled NBC coverage introducing mass audiences to unfamiliar athletes and events’. True sports consumers were ‘now-freed’, the company declared, liberated by the ability to catch ‘a tangible glimpse of the long-awaited convergence of TV and the Internet’ courtesy of the great broadcast pioneers at NBC.

If that wasn’t proof enough that the network was heroically blazing a trail for die-hard, content-hungry US sports fans, there was more. Since Nielsen doesn't actually track online viewership, NBC has created a ‘Nielsen-like metric’ of its own, something it calls ‘Total Audience Delivery’. It is the result of some expert strategic foresight on the part of the network’s executives; a metric that not only quantifies viewer consumption data across broadcast television, cable and streaming platforms, but also shows, beyond all doubt, that NBC’s Olympic coverage is in fact about ‘as good as it gets’.

NBC’s primetime coverage last Saturday, for instance, achieved a total audience delivery score of 26.8 million, a 14 per cent rise on the opening Saturday of the Games. On Friday, the network says it surpassed two billion streaming minutes across its website and app, with 1.67 billion watched live. Indeed, total streaming minutes for Rio 2016 have now topped total streaming minutes for all previous Olympics combined, which no doubt explains why NBC’s sales team has managed to sell a further US$30 million in advertising since the Games began.

“We are aggregating audiences at a scale nobody has done before,” chimed Mark Lazarus, the chairman of NBC Sports Group. “This will be our most economically successful Games in history, and it’s by far the most viewer-friendly TV event of all time.

“In addition, we’re delivering for all of our affiliates, our MVPD partners, as well as all of our advertisers. We spent years preparing for this and our team has worked tirelessly to put us in this position. We’ve been part of a changing media landscape, and NBC and Comcast have been and are leaders in that.”

Thankfully for all those mistaken observers out there who had been led to wrongfully challenge NBC’s cultured Olympic strategy, the media could finally write informed pieces. This great American institution, with its unsurpassed Olympic heritage and reputation for award-winning production, was providing blanket digital coverage and the facts were in: last Tuesday, primetime viewership had nearly equalled the audience for this year’s Academy Awards; the Olympic ‘halo-effect’ meant commercials that ran inside Games coverage had a 39 per cent better viewer recall when they ran outside Rio coverage; and NBC’s total ‘social engagements’ had in fact dwarfed those of March Madness, Taylor Swift, and even Pokemon Go.

‘But quibbling with all these various numbers,’ NBC crowed, ‘is a bit like asking exactly how many tanks or helicopters are in an army when are [sic] you really want to know is whether it can dominate its adversaries.’

As condescending as it came across, such fighting talk was to be expected from a network that has forked out more than US$12 billion for the rights to show every Olympics up until 2032. Having paid the International Olympic Committee (IOC) some US$100 million just to do the good work of promoting Olympic values around the world - and having spent around the same amount on marketing its Rio coverage alone - the stakes have never been higher for NBC. Quite simply, the pressure to turn a profit from the Games, its signature sports property, has grown to a level that no other broadcaster has to bear and that no viewer at home would ever understand.

That perhaps explains why the network has invested so heavily in providing a first-rate, all-encompassing digital offering this time round, and probably also goes some way to explaining why NBC bosses took the strategic decision to make their traditional TV product so off-putting in the first place.

As more and more sports fans take their consumption online, it was the least they could do.

Michael Long (@_MichaelLong) is SportsPro's Americas editor and this is his weekly column.