One of the longest-running complaints against NBC’s Olympic coverage is how they’ve delayed their prime-time main-channel coverage for the West Coast, focusing on story over live results. That won’t be an issue for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, as Steve Battaglio of The Los Angeles Times reports that NBC is planning to air its prime-time coverage of those Olympics live from coast to coast:
NBC’s prime-time coverage of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, will air live across the United States, including on the West Coast, a first since the Games became a major television attraction in the late 1960s.
…Jim Bell, president, programming and production for NBC Olympics, told the Los Angeles Times that making the Games live coast-to-coast is a way to address evolving viewer habits while “reasserting” television’s status as the preeminent medium for coverage.
“We’re streaming it live, and social media has become so ubiquitous that it’s hard to ignore even for people who are trying to avoid it,” Bell said. “It just seemed like it was the right time to take this step.”
NBC has since confirmed with a press release of their own, featuring more quotes about how great this step is:
“Nothing brings America together for two weeks like the Olympics, and that communal experience will now be shared across the country at the same time, both on television and streaming online,” said Bell. “That means social media won’t be ahead of the action in any time zone, and as a result, none of our viewers will have to wait for anything. This is exciting news for the audience, the advertisers, and our affiliates alike.”
Hmm. That’s quite the change in tune for Bell, previously known for snarky Twitter responses to those who complained about the delay. It’s also a huge change for NBC; NBC Olympics chief marketing officer John Miller said last summer (in response to questions about NBC tape-delaying the opening ceremonies) that “The people who watch the Olympics are not particularly sports fans. More women watch the Games than men, and for the women, they’re less interested in the result and more interested in the journey,” and NBC sports chairman Mark Lazarus defended their tape-delay strategy by saying “our belief is that to make the programming available when most people are available, which is primetime in their time zone.”
Why is NBC finally abandoning its much-maligned tape delay plans? As Battaglio writes, it may be about audience movement. The network’s primetime Olympic coverage found some ratings successes for last summer’s Rio Olympics and still brought in 25.4 million viewers (on average for the primetime broadcast) over 17 nights, but that was down 18 per cent from the 2012 London Olympics. Meanwhile, streaming hit 2.7 billion total minutes, nearly double what had been recorded over all previous editions of the Games. Some of that was for things that weren’t being televised, of course, but some of it was people seeking out live events rather than waiting for NBC to get to them hours later (especially those on the West Coast). Going live coast-to-coast may indeed help to bring people back to the more-easily-monetizable platform of TV.
It’s amazing that it took NBC this long to do this, given how people have complained about these delays for so long, but the pressure perhaps finally built to a level where they could no longer resist. It’s worth noting that NBC did try more subtle shifts last summer, making those streaming options much more available (and leading to the mockable tagline of “Most Live Olympics Ever), but this is still a huge step beyond that. It also is somewhat surprising that they gave in in the end; while the delays were regularly cited as the biggest thing they needed to change, those NBC executives’ comments just last year seemed pretty set on sticking with their tape-delay strategy.
Of course, another part of this change may be about the event and about the time zone. For one thing, the Winter Olympics tends to draw less American viewers than the Summer Olympics, so a change here is less risky; if it pays off, great (and Bell says in the Times article that the plan is to do this for 2020 and 2022 as well), but if it doesn’t, it’s not as crucial of a misstep. For another thing, the time zone difference to Pyeongchang (13 hours behind Eastern Time) is already expected to hurt ratings a bit, so expectations are lower. It’s not like Rio, which was close to Eastern Time. Still, several marquee events are already planned for morning local time so they can be carried in prime time in Eastern Time. Showing those during the workday on the West Coast isn’t what NBC ideally would like, but they may find that ratings do just as well or better for feeds of what’s actually going on rather than what happened three hours ago. (And also, their primetime coverage is starting at 5 p.m. Pacific; that’s not exactly super early.)
In any case, this is a major sea change for NBC, and one that many viewers have been demanding for some time. We’ll see if it pays off for them in the ratings.