Life After Phelps For NBC

Many times the best marketing job and the best promotions can only take television ratings so far. Networks need something special to make the leap to the next level. Enter Michael Phelps. He single-handedly made NBC Must Watch TV for the first time in a decade, boosting Olympic ratings to record setting nights for a non-US based Olympics.

Phelps captivated the nation for a week in his pursuit of a record 8 gold medals in Bejing. NBC played their cards perfect, all the starts were broadcast live on East Coast, and Phelps kept winning and smiling for the camera. Saturday everything climax, Phelps set the record, NBC had its highest Saturday night viewership since Empty Nest in 1990. Empty Nest, sure to bring back memories.

Week two, no Phelps, some gymnastics – will viewers continue to tune in? Americans love the story, Phelps was the story, but it’s over. Expect ratings to plummet back to reality with swimming over and gymnastics winding down, as the public shifts focus back to everyday life with any extraordinary story to follow in Bejing.

2008 is the first digital Olympics. NBC’s broadband offering has received more hits than all recent Olympics combined. Impressive, though not overly impressive given the current landscape of streaming video compared to four years ago. Timing kills NBC in this area. Friday night, I missed the Phelps race by about 5 minutes, so I immediately go to, only to find the result and a news article. Anyone can get that from ESPN or CBS, I want the race. It took at least an hour, if not longer to post the entire race, barely over a minute of video. That bothered me. It defeats the whole purpose of streaming video. The three i’s – instant, information, interaction. NBC fails in these three area, compared to what they could offer.

Instantaneous – well, NBC executives who played the Opening Ceremony on 12 hour delay for the same fans who could see it goingo n live in the background of the Today show, have no concept of instantaneous. In 2008, people want information when they want it, not when NBC wents to divulge it. People don’t necessarily need to know the second an event happens, they just want to see and learn things at their own convenience. It may take a few more head bangs against the pavement for TV executives to learn – live streaming does not cannibalize audience, it builds audience. Witholding events from the broadband site to prevent cannibalizing TV ratings is counterproductive.

To compund matters, not everything shown live in the East is live in the West, actually most is just shown on the three hour time delay. That’s fine, just don’t label it live when it’s not. And, when the big events come on, events NBC knows capture the biggest audience, put them on live no matter what time it is on either coast. Today’s technology has taken down the barriers of information flow, don’t try to block that information because it will only hurt the audience if they have to work hard to find out what they want when they want it.

NBC needs to change its mindset for Olympic coverage. The old saying goes, audiences turn over approximately every 15 minutes, so what’s wrong with showing an event live, then replaying it during primetime hours. Maybe more total viewers. Anything wrong with that. NBC shoudl take a more user oriented view of the situation – a 2008 viewer, not a 1996 viewer, and reconsider witholding events from broadband and relying on tape delay.


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