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Can NBC Garner Olympic-Sized Ratings?

If you haven’t seen the commercials on every NBC channel for the last year, the 29th Summer Olympic Games commence in Beijing at 08:08:08 p.m. Given that Beijing is 12 hours ahead of the East Coast, and 15 hours ahead of the West Coast, the Opening Ceremonies will be taped. That’s all fine and dandy for a glowing extravaganza, but what about for real competition?

If you haven’t seen the commercials on every NBC channel for the last year, the 29th Summer Olympic Games commence in Beijing at 08:08:08 p.m. Given that Beijing is 12 hours ahead of the East Coast, and 15 hours ahead of the West Coast, the Opening Ceremonies will be taped. That’s all fine and dandy for a glowing extravaganza, but what about for real competition?

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Ratings of the Sydney broadcasts in 2000 were the worst ever for NBC and suffered because most Americans were able to read results when they woke up in the morning. The network only had a 14.4 average rating on the Nielsen scale. Athens in 2004 didn’t do that much better and had an average of 14.7. The Atlanta games had a double advantage with American superstar athletes (i.e. the “Magnificent Seven” women’s gymnastics team) and live-broadcasting the whole time in 1996, thus reaching a 21.5 rating.

A few events will be live, due to some serious maneuvering on the part of NBC Universal. The peacock network negotiated with the International Olympic Committee for swimming events to start in the morning, Beijing time, so that the network can broadcast races during prime time to American audiences.

This year, most people are probably going to go to the Internet to find out results prior to taped broadcasts. But how many people will still want to watch events on TV if they already know the medal winners hours in advance? For those who do want live action, NBCOlympics.com have partnered with Microsoft, via Microsoft’s Silverlight technology, to bring more than 2,200 hours of live coverage and over 3,000 hours of on-demand programming. Verizon is also pushing Olympic coverage over streaming VCast videos, and AT&T is competing with MediaFlo and U-Verse products.  (But for those who like the old-school viewing style, NBC will be broadcasting between 200 to 300 hours per day of coverage over the next 17 days over the company’s networks.) Experts at TNS Media estimate that five percent of viewers will watch Olympic programming via personal computers or mobile phones.

Aside from technological advances, Beijing, is significantly different from Sydney: it is the most politicized and controversial Olympic Games ever. And that was before the torch even reached the Chinese capitol. Since the torch relay began in Greece earlier this year, protests over human rights issues in Tibet have followed it in major metropolises around the globe, including Paris, London, San Francisco and Buenos Aires. Not to mention that many international athletes have formed “Team Darfur,” a group critical of China’s business and trading policies in Darfur, Sudan. On Wednesday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry revoked a visa from Joey Cheek, a U.S. Olympic Gold Medalist speed skater in the 2006 Winter Olympics and founder of Team Darfur, without any reason. However, the United States Olympic team has chosen Lopez Lomong, a 1,500-meter runner who became an American citizen 13 months ago — and a member of Team Darfur, as its flag bearer during the Opening Ceremonies tonight.

Ratings still might suffer due to the immense time difference. Then there’s the availability of online and mobile viewing, which will definitely impact daytime viewing while Americans have more access to computers rather than televisions over the course of a workday. But the big-ticket sports (like track & field and women’s gymnastics) will probably still bring people back to their television sets. And with the political and environmental hype ever the location of the 2008 Games were announced (and maybe with a few American superstar stories), NBC could see its biggest draw for a Summer Olympics outside of the United States ever.

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